Whiskey Ring buffs should have a grand time with Linney’s 1975 study of Ulysses Grant’s presidency and the corruption that beset it. For the rest of us, the charms of Democracy may prove more elusive, particularly in this rather pallid production. Linney has blended the plotlines of two Henry Adams novels, each concerned with the plight of independent women in 19th-century Washington. Bohemian Esther Dudley (O’Keefe) loves the glib Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale) but despises the hypocrisy of his church, while good-government advocate and recent widow Mrs. Lee (Prescott) views the wooing of Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Steinhagen) with a receptive but suspicious eye. From the start, Linney has an enormous amount of material to encapsulate; although he summarizes and sketches deftly, we’re well into the second act before either story begins to take wing.
The democratic clash of ideals, power and money has a perennial relevance, but Eclipse’s staging unhappily brings out the civics-class tone lurking within Linney’s play. The opening scenes, a series of static tableaux, move far too ponderously. Chris Jensen’s odd set, a garish abstract steamship, relinquishes the period setting from the get-go, and with a few exceptions, the performances fail to convey a place and time other than contemporary Chicago. The exceptions: Steinhagen’s anxiously plotting senator, torn between duty and self-interest, and Esther, sharply drawn by O’Keefe as a liberated but still vulnerable young woman.