Salt Lake Acting Company recounts a friendship in ‘Grant and Twain’

A-Grant-&-Twain Colby Patterson
The cast of “Grant & Twain” perfrom a scene. From left to right, David Spencer, Kathryn Atwood, Morgan Lund, Marshall Bell and Brien K. Jones. Photo courtesy of Dav.D Photography.

The cast of “Grant & Twain” perfrom a scene. From left to right, David Spencer, Kathryn Atwood, Morgan Lund, Marshall Bell and Brien K. Jones. Photo courtesy of Dav.D Photography.

There are few relationships more complicated than intense friendship between two guys, one which is affectionately known as the “bromance.” The dynamics between literary characters such as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, Frodo and Sam or Hamlet and Horatio are laced with dramatic intricacies. In such relationships, trust is implicit, and bonds only grow via struggles and adventures. With their endearing and stomach-churning side effects, these popular bromances are easy to spot and often include tender moments of closeness and a refusal to acknowledge a codependency.

A relatively unknown friendship can be added to this list — the relationship between Ulysses S. Grant and Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain). Until recently, this friendship between a former president and a renowned American writer remained buried in lengthy footnotes and historical documents.

When playwright Elizabeth Diggs got ahold of such documents and read the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, she was intrigued by the connection between these two unique individuals.

Inspired, Diggs set out to investigate their lives. After three years of research, she wrote the play “Grant & Twain,” which won the Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award. The world premiere of “Grant & Twain” will take place at the Salt Lake Acting Company from Feb. 5-March 2.

This show reveals the reality of General Grant and Mark Twain’s relationship but allows fiction to help fill in the blanks.

“I appreciate how, through this play, Diggs paints Grant’s history and legacy in a positive light. So much that is popularly known of him focuses on his failures and scandals, when in reality, his other contributions far outweigh the challenges he faced and overcame,” said Brien K. Jones, who plays the character of Harrison Terrell.

The story takes place right after the Civil War, but its themes, such as greed, power and friendship, make it relevant to a modern audience. General Grant experiences financial ruin after the war. Desperate to provide for his family, Grant agrees to write and publish his personal memoirs. Although his time in the army solidified him as a great American leader, he had yet to prove himself as a writer. So, Grant enlists Twain, along with historian Adam Badeau, played by David Spencer, to help him write a bestseller. The group initially disagrees on how to publish the book, but eventually, Twain convinces Grant to entrust the book to his newly established publishing firm Charles L. Webster & Company. After Grant is diagnosed with cancer, writing his story becomes deeply personal, and he races to finish the book before he dies.

Marshall Bell makes his debut at Salt Lake Acting Company playing the 18th President and hero of the Union. Although historically accurate, Bell’s portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant, a man known for his stoicism and modesty, borders on boring. For a story centering around him and his struggles, Grant disappears into the background in most of the scenes. Fortunately, the play’s focus on Grant’s relationship with his wife, servants and soldiers humanizes him, and by the end of the play, the audience will tear up as they watch the beloved war veteran wither away.

Samuel Clemens, played by Morgan Lund, steals the show with his bold personality, witty one-liners and spot-on social commentary. Lund’s version of Twain is both original and entertaining, and each time he steps on stage he commands the attention of every audience member. Twain was known as a bit of a scoundrel, and Lund captures this rogue aspect of his personality without becoming immensely unlikable.

“I was told to avoid any and all characterizations [of Twain] in our media,” Lund said. “I read historical accounts from his family, friends, neighbors and critics, and a lot of his performances and letters.”

“This is a fictional account of real people based on historical fact and then reimagined,” said Kathryn Atwood, the actor playing Grant’s wife, Julia. “I think re-imagining the past helps bring clarity in a way that just listing the facts cannot. Truth is found more often in fiction than in [a] literal retelling.”

s.meyer@chronicle.utah.edu