Gary Wright’s fine new play, “Of Kites and Kings,” in its world premiere at Sacramento Theatre Company, shows an intimate side of a legendary man. Benjamin Franklin’s exploits as a politician, scientist, inventor, diplomat and author cast him as one of history’s all-time great achievers. Still, even great people are not necessarily great at everything, and Franklin’s personal relationships notoriously suffered in comparison to his public achievements.
Wright’s episodic play, which covers 33 years, puts Franklin’s outsize figure mostly in the background, focusing on his uneven relationship with his acknowledged illegitimate son, William.
It was a 21-year-old William who solely accompanied Ben on the experiment with the famous kite in the electrical storm. That episode becomes a strong but incomplete thematic coda. Wright brings us back to the stormy night several times, showing Ben and William together at a moment of bonding and emotional connection that they’ll never have again as the play examines what went wrong between the two men.
Ted Barton as Ben and Dan Fagan as William offer satisfying characterizations of the two men futilely trying to gain each other’s respect. After studying law in London, William became a rigid Loyalist throughout the American Revolutionary War. Benjamin, of course, became a U.S. Founding Father, helping draft the Declaration of Independence, among many other civic endeavors. The writing is strongest in their disagreements, and as the story progresses, the actors gain depth and resonance as a result.
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Though ostensibly centered on the two men, “Of Kites and Kings” is a three-person play that occasionally feels one-sided. The action is playfully narrated by Polly Stevenson, the romantically inclined landlady portrayed by Katie Rubin. Stevenson, a central character herself as a confidant to both Ben and William, awkwardly commandeers the story for self-conscious comic relief. The action often digresses into Polly’s fantasies of hooking up with William – they play comically throughout – but the interludes feel less and less like they belong in the play we’re watching. Rubin also plays Englishwoman Elizabeth Downes, who married William in 1762. The Downes scenes muddle the play’s focus and tone, though Rubin commits to it all so successfully it nearly works.
There’s also a fourth character, William Temple Franklin, William’s illegitimate English son, whom Ben ultimately takes under his venerable wing. Adrian Anderson smartly performed Temple in the performance I saw; he splits the role with Riley Edwards.
Director Eric Wheeler effectively controls the broad scope of the play’s narrative strands and competing tones pushing the essential emotion to the front. The attractive production features evocative lighting and sound design by Les Solomon and handsome period costumes by Jessica Minnihan.
History naturally favors the victors in this particular conflict, though Wright suggests Ben had complicity in William’s stubborn tragic downfall. William chose the wrong side and never could admit that mistake.
Beyond his fondness for Polly, we see little of Ben outside of his dealings with William, so there’s not much to compare in his conduct with the outside world. Ben’s hardness with William at the end feels harsh, but there’s nothing to suggest William wouldn’t have treated Ben the same way if the tables were turned.
Of Kites and Kings
What: World premiere of a play about Benjamin Franklin’s relationship with his son, William. Written by Gary Wright, directed by Eric Wheeler, with Ted Barton, Dan Fagan, Katie Rubin, Adrian Anderson and Riley Edwards.
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Pollock Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; continues through Dec. 13
Information: 916-443-6722; www.sactheatre.org
Time: Two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.