CUSTER -- At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through Nov. 18.
The Last Stand was only the beginning. After Custer was defeated at Little Bighorn, his widow took to the lecture circuit with great success, and Sitting Bull became, for a season, a star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Even the only surviving Army horse, Comanche, parlayed the experience into a show-business career, parading saddled but riderless with the Seventh Cavalry.
The talk-show approach to history is thus appropriately used in Robert E. Igham's "Custer," which the Folger Theater Group, directed by Louis W. Scheeder, is doing at Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. Unfortunately the show was unable to snag either Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, and thus the only concession to the fairness doctrine is one anonymous Indian in a cameo appearance.
Custer himself is there, though, with the eloquent and passionate Mrs. Custer, and members of the Seventh Cavalry who report slightly differing versions of what happened and their views on what should have happened. Each of them addresses the audience, and although there is no host to keep order, they are fairly polite to one another and share the time in a reasonably orderly fashion.
The trouble with this technique is what's always wrong with it on television: The people engage in uninteresting personal gossip -- bragging about their wives, grousing about not being promoted -- and then refuse to discuss the really juicy questions. Mrs. Custer, for instance, in the mold of the perfect political wife, extols her husband, parades her adoration for him, and, when the question of his having an Indian mistress comes up, merely gives him a hard look and then resumes her happy-wife performance.
The setting of the show, it says in the program, is "here and now." Nevertheless, the characters are dressed in stylized 19th-century clothes in daguerreotype colors and are assembled under a canopy in the plains for their round-table discussion. Only once does Custer hint at the "now" point of view that might condemn his quest to destroy land and Indians "for industry and progress." His defense is that everybody at the time believed in the same goal. So much for historical perspective.
But while "Custer" provides neither historical nor dramatic excitement, the forceful acting has succeeded in creating "personalities." General and Mrs. Custer, as played by Tom Blair and Sandy Faison, are one-dimensional people -- but that one dimension apiece is awesome.
And John McMartin as Frederick William Benteen, the sophisticated southerner who despises his cocky commander, is so interesting one would wish to see such a character in a real play, experiencing, rather than retelling, ethical and tactical conflicts.