Let us be charitable. "Appomattox," the new play by Christopher Hampton that had its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater, has not discovered its identity or purpose. A meandering pageant through two painful eras of American history, "Appomattox" gives every appearance that Hampton is critiquing U.S. race relations. It's tepid stuff, though, and Hampton rarely delivers an insight that transcends the voluminous public record on civil rights.

Hampton's play is based on the 2007 opera that he wrote with composer Philip Glass. The first act -- a supremely wooden and documentary 75 minutes -- circles around the last weeks of the U.S. Civil War. President Lincoln (Harry Groener) demonstrates his goodness, Robert E. Lee (Philip Kerr) cultivates delusions that he might still win the war and Ulysses Grant (Mark Benninghofen) fights off the splitting headache of battle fatigue. Director David Esbjornson manages some scenic tricks but largely is handcuffed by a script leaden with oration. Lee and Grant, negotiating terms for surrender, read aloud the letters sent between them. If the content is interesting, it is because the Civil War is inherently an interesting subject. The drama, however, is lifeless.

The second act offers hope for salvation. Hampton vaults us forward 100 years to 1965. Chaos and brutality jump out violently in the Alabama diner slaying of Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Esbjornson finally has material he can energize.

Further, Hampton clearly relishes Lyndon Baines Johnson's swaggering myth. Groener spits out LBJ's jaundiced and vulgar colloquialisms ("This is the biggest story since DeGaulle farted") and revels in a character who understood that power is useless if it is not used. Groener's LBJ gives obeisance to J. Edgar Hoover (Brian Reddy) and then excoriates the FBI director as soon as he is out the door. With George Wallace (Mark Boyett), Johnson spins a web of flattery and then gives him the bald truth. This is at least good drama.

Shawn Hamilton's Martin Luther King is less of a character study as Hampton relies more on the man's public moments. Still, give Hamilton a full-throated amen for his performance. If the Guthrie were to offer a special ticket just for Hamilton's rendition of King's speech at the Alabama state capitol, you should buy it. Hamilton's masterpiece sets fire to the auditorium.

You can't buy that ticket, of course. You must sit through the three-hour affair. Kerr's performances as Lee and then Sen. Richard Russell in the second act are both full and rich. Richard Ooms closes the play with a vitriolic monologue as unrepentant racist Edgar Ray Killen -- illustrating that cretins still exist.

What is the point of all this? Act One feels like a war story and Act Two is more a "West Wing" political drama. That it took more than a century for America to shake the effects of slavery (and race even today divides the national consciousness) is not an original thought. On the terms of a historical testament, "Appomattox" might have some life. Is that all it hoped to achieve?

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299