The Partnership of Lewis and Clark

A new paly explores the struggle and exhilaration of the famous expedition

BITTERROOT. Historical drama written and directed by Alan Lindgren. Produced by Julie McPike.

LEWIS and Clark set out 189 years ago not far from this southern Illinois town, poling their keelboats toward a flooded Missouri River and setting a course for American nationhood. Their expedition blazed a right of way for a train of settlement, commerce, development, and tragedy.

This is the wide lens that is traditionally focused on that epochmaking trek.

Less familiar is the story of what that singular journey of discovery did to the men directly involved. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were kindred in their passion for their task, yet they were polar opposites. Lewis was a dreamer, introspective and impatient with himself and others; Clark, more outgoing, pragmatic, and objective. But their friendship was profound, and their partnership, though often stormy, achieved genius.

This remarkable meshing of two strong but disparate individuals is at the heart of a new play based on the 1804 expedition. Its name, "Bitterroot," evokes both the hardship encountered by the explorers and the Western mountain range that marked their realization that the Northwest Passage, the long-anticipated easy way to the Pacific, didn't exist. The play had a short run from July 27 to Aug. 1 at the Ann Whitney Olin Theatre on the campus of Lewis and Clark Community College here.

"Bitterroot" opens with a perplexed William Clark looking back on their two-year walk to the Western edge of the continent and concluding, "It was mostly about money, economics," taking the trade in beaver pelts away from the British. Then he turns to the suicide of his friend Lewis - a wrenching scene that becomes a dark refrain through the play - and laments, "He seemed so damned indestructible."

With this scene, playwright and director Alan Lindgren, a resident of Godfrey and former head of the drama department at nearby Principia College, lets the audience know the sad end of the story's personal saga even before the central narrative - the journey itself - begins. It's immediately clear this is going to be no simple reenactment of American history, but a probing look at why men push themselves to incredible heights.

In the case of Meriwether Lewis, perceptively played by Martin LaPlatney, the reason, as Lindgren sees it, is a turbulent mix of irrational guilt from the early loss of his father and a yearning to please his mentor and substitute father, President Thomas Jefferson. Lewis is enthralled by the process of discovery - the plants, animals, and Indian cultures he catalogs - but haunted by an inner melancholy.

Clark, portrayed by Seth Jones, has no inner ghosts, only a determination to complete the job at hand. He is Lewis's rudder. Jones's periodic monologues to the audience, spoken with vigor and humor, help glue this sprawling story together. As the party struggles up a river choked with snags and floating trees, Clark snorts, "Make history! We'd be lucky if we made nightfall."

There's a great deal of talking with the audience in "Bitterroot," in fact, from the main characters, including Jefferson, played with a kind of brooding eminence by Joneal Joplin, and by the Indians encountered along the trail. This could have slowed the play, making it a little self-consciously intellectual or polemical. But with few exceptions, these speeches are cleverly written and effectively delivered.

The comments from the Indians, in particular, are critical to the larger drama coming in the wake of Lewis and Clark. The tribes' long established ways of life will be overrun by the less benevolent white men who follow the explorers. The Indians ask themselves, and the audience, "What did they want?" Some grimly foresee the invasions ahead and the inevitability of war.

Aside from LaPlatney, Jones, and Joplin - accomplished professionals from New York and St. Louis - the cast of "Bitterroot" draws on local talent.

As Indians, members of the Lewis and Clark party, French trappers, and courtesans to Jefferson, the amateurs give some fine performances.

The whole undertaking is, in fact, something of a local triumph. Webster University in St. Louis and Principia College provided expertise in music, lighting, and staging. Some sense of the natural splendor found by the expedition is conveyed by scenes projected on cloth screens hung above a simple central set, a rocky mound that serves as camp, boat deck, or Indian village. On the left corner of the theater's broad stage is Jefferson's White House sitting room; on the right, a mountain peak.

Businesses and foundations in the area contributed much of the funding for the production. Local Shriners - who share a Masonic bond with Lewis, Clark, and Jefferson - served as organizers and ushers and will receive part of the proceeds from the play.

The staff at Lewis and Clark Community College deserve special credit for tackling what must have been a monumental organizing task.

Julie McPike, the school's director of communications and executive producer of "Bitterroot," conceived the idea of a play to coincide with a gathering here of a national association devoted to preserving the heritage of Lewis and Clark.

What she, writer Lindgren, and others accomplished deserves to reach audiences beyond the enthusiastic crowds here.

The play opens a window on our past and challenges us to consider the human investment that shaped it. The exhilaration and anguish experienced by those explorers reverberates today as floods and pollution force us to consider whether the "train" of development shouldn't be slowed. As Clark challenges the audience in "Bitterroot's" last scene: "All this, the rivers and the mountains, belongs to you now."

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