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Present at the creation

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010; C06

Dolley Madison? There's life in the old girl yet, as PBS's "American Experience" series turns its respectful if fidgety gaze Monday night to the woman who defined what being the first lady might mean and who prolonged her social status as the original Washington doyenne.

"Dolley Madison: America's First Lady" lovingly recounts the ups and downs of its singularly fascinating subject. Madison lived long enough to witness the American Revolution and send one of the nation's first telegrams, some seven decades later. She even showed up as a sweet-faced, geriatric blur in some of the first Washington party pics.

By the time she died in 1849 at 81, she'd become a reliable grandma-type at dinner parties, regaling the town with her lucid, firsthand memories of the founders and the events that shaped a nation. She saw the swamp verge on metropolis. She made it fun to live here when it was anything but, famously serving ice cream in the White House to cool the partisan rancor of her party guests. She surmised the scope of still-fresh history to such a degree that she hastily cut Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington out of its White House frame and spirited it away just hours before the British burned the place down in 1814.

We know all this (or we sorta should), but "American Experience" dolls up its subject with an array of technical doodads that seem designed to snap us out of our academic dozing.

You've probably noticed that historical programs have gone high-tech lately -- perhaps attuned to the aftermarket in high school history classes. That's certainly the case here: Drawings and paintings from the era are no longer inert; the people and objects in them (slaves, hills, trees, Dolley Madison, whatever) come apart from their backgrounds and move, in an attempt to mimic the third dimension. No longer will an old map of primordial D.C. suffice; it becomes a computer-generated aerial shot.

More unexpected? Pushing the dreary PBS reenactment scenes into an area that more resembles mockumentary, where actors look at the camera directly and speak casually of everything from wars, hats and fevers to gossip and all things 1810.

We've left behind the Ken Burns style of narration, where an off-camera actor reads the correspondence and speeches of long ago, pauses for a moment at the end of the sentence and then dutifully cites the source while the camera lovingly pans parchment documents, oil paintings and daguerreotypes.

Now we hear it from Dolley herself, talking to us like a new best friend. Actually it's Eve Best (you've seen her in "Nurse Jackie") who plays Dolley at various ages and in various millinery. We also get to hear from actors playing James Madison, relatives and friends, politicians and "loyal" slaves.

It reminds me of those Rotarian or garden club luncheons in Marriott ballrooms where, between the chicken entree and the cheesecake, we are unexpectedly "joined" by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Nellie Bly -- an earnest actor in period costume -- who then wanders amid the tables and monologues his or her way through some light history lessons. (I was at one such luncheon where Gen. George Armstrong Custer helped himself to a dinner roll.)

It's a slightly jarring experience in televised format, especially when folded in with Cokie Roberts and other writers and historians, who are brought in to talk about the Madison administration. The overall effect is to capture viewers in a budget restraint: We can't afford a full-on scripted drama about Dolley Madison, but we're also afraid of boring you with a plain, old documentary format.

I'm not sure these newfangled hybrids have yet found the right mix of reenactment, CGI effects and valid scholarship, but "Dolley Madison" is an interesting experiment in preserving the past.

Dolley Madison: America's First Lady

(90 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT.

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