Catskill play explores cryptic death of Meriwether Lewis

The cast of Grinder’s Stand, left to right: seated, Nancy Rothman, Steven Patterson, Stephen Jones; standing, Jon Lee, William Dobbins, Phillip X. Levine, Brett Owen. (V. James dePerna Photography)

The cast of Grinder’s Stand, left to right: seated, Nancy Rothman, Steven Patterson, Stephen Jones; standing, Jon Lee, William Dobbins, Phillip X. Levine, Brett Owen. (V. James dePerna Photography)

Mrs. Grinder:
Have you lost someone?

Meriwether Lewis:
Some thing, although I’m not sure what it was. I had it on the trail to Oregon,
But sometime after that, it disappeared.

 Mrs. Grinder:
I’ll drink to that: the loss of nameless things.

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The transcontinental trek of Lewis and Clark, which took place from May 1804 to September 1806, spanned more than 8,000 miles. The journey of Oakley Hall III – whose play about the strange demise of Meriwether Lewis opens on Thursday, October 8 at the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill – was an inner one: Following a near-fatal fall from a bridge over the Schoharie Creek, he wandered in the wilderness of his mind for many years before he was able to retrieve some semblance of himself.

In Grinder’s Stand, a verse play that recalls Jacobean drama, both in the rhythms of its language and in its themes of political intrigue and moral corruption, Hall revives the controversy surrounding the death of Lewis, who at the time was governor of the Louisiana Territory. While his death was officially ruled a suicide, so many accounts and details are at variance as to suggest strongly that it was otherwise – whether a simple act of murder, which was practically a daily occurrence along the Natchez Trace, or a deliberate act of assassination.

The play, which was given its premiere by the company that Hall founded, the Lexington Conservatory Theatre, in 1979, is as epic as the early 19th-century American frontier of which it sings. Set in 1809, it packs enough drama for three plays, with a cast of seven bringing to vivid life spies, conspirators, scoundrels, Indian agents and a black slave, with intimations of the coming war with the British in 1812. But the history of the playwright – his backstory – is as fascinating and as fraught with peril as the tale he tells.

Oakley Hall III (photo by Michael Bronfenbrenner)

Oakley Hall III (photo by Michael Bronfenbrenner)

By all accounts, and from the evidence of his work, Oakley Hall III (1950-2011) was possessed by that mysterious spark that we call genius. He was also possessed by personal demons that were indispensable, perhaps, to his art, but which eventually drove him to his tragic fate. His accident, which may or may not have been fueled by substance abuse and which, like his hero’s death in Grinder’s Stand, may not have been the suicidal act that it appeared to be, effectively snuffed his creative flame and made him dependent on the kindness of family, friends and lovers for many years. Following that fall – which had the effect, almost, of a prefrontal lobotomy – many of Hall’s intimates began to see uncanny parallels to what happened to him and what happened to some of the characters in his plays.

“What’s bizarre about Oakley is that everything he wrote wound up having such resonance to his own life,” says Steven Patterson, who plays the shady Robert Smith in this production and was a member of the Lexington Conservatory during its 1971 season. What transpired in Hall’s life, he adds, was almost “like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Hall completed Grinder’s Stand (the title refers to the wilderness inn where Lewis met his death) the year before his accident. After its Lexington debut a year later, it was not performed again until 2002, when the Foothill Theatre revived it in Nevada City, not far from the home of Oakley’s parents. In 2009, it was performed al fresco (with live horses!) at Kaw Point Park in Kansas City, Kansas. But the current show, a Kaliyuga Arts production, returns the play to the place where it was born – Greene County – and to many of the people who knew, worked with and were inspired by the playwright.

The full story of Oakley Hall’s near-death and eventual, if only partial, resurrection, along with a chronicle of the Lexington Conservatory Theatre in its wild and woolly heyday, is told in Bill Rose’s documentary The Loss of Nameless Things. The film takes it title from an indelible phrase in Hall’s play: one that strikes a particular chord with his own experience and that of Meriwether Lewis. There will be screenings of the film concurrently with the show’s run, as well as an exhibition of photos and ephemera celebrating the legacy of the Lexington Conservatory Theatre.

In truth, the journey of Lewis and Clark is a perfect metaphor for the art of Oakley Hall III: an art of “constant, unremitting exploration” that never allows the vision to atrophy, that is willing to risk everything in the service of “inexhaustible beauty.” Hall intuitively understood that when art ceases to be exploration, when it ceases to re-create and reinvent itself, it slowly rots and dies.
Grinder’s Stand is directed and designed by John Sowle, managing director of the Bridge Street Theatre. The set, in the theater’s Raw Room – a spare and intimate space that formerly housed a factory – beautifully evokes the hardscrabble ruggedness of frontier life in the early 1800s: There’s a dilapidated cabin, a series of wooden planks linking one part of the stage area with another, hundreds of branches along the walls to simulate the forest road that was the Natchez Trace and even a keelboat, with video projections of water glancing off its sides. In addition to Patterson, who is Sowle’s life partner and the artistic director of Bridge Street, the talented cast includes William Dobbins, Stephen Jones, Jon Lee, Phillip X. Levine, Brett Owen and Nancy Rothman.

Grinder’s Stand runs from October 8 to 18 at the theater at 44 West Bridge Street in the village of Catskill. Performances take place on Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinées at 2 p.m. A “Pay What You Can” performance will take place on Thursday, October 8. Regular tickets cost $20, $15 for students and seniors, and can be obtained at www.brownpapertickets.com. For more information on this and all upcoming Bridge Street Theatre events, visit www.bridgest.org or call (518) 943-3818.

There is one comment

  1. Sands Hall

    Dear Mr. Horowitz. Thank you for this thoughtful, thorough, and beautifully written article. Oak is (does one say was?) my brother, and I so wish he were alive to read your words, as well as to see this terrific production of his play. I appreciate your bringing attention to him, and to the wonderful work being done by the Bridge Street Theatre.

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