Best Bets: Should we stay or should we go?

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

My grandmother, who lived in Alaska for 40 years, was buried in a grassy cemetery in downtown Anchorage in late August 1999. I was 20. I still remember looking out at the Chugach Range as the machine lowered the oak coffin into the earth and promising that I would make my life in Alaska. Someday, I decided, I too would be buried in the family plot.

I have second thoughts about this idea now and then. Most recently I started dreaming about living in San Francisco on the third morning this week I found myself scraping ice off the inside of my windshield with the back of my Costco card. As the car heater blew its icy breath in my face, I couldn't help thinking: Why am I choosing to live at the end of the Earth? Can you really be a writer here?

For every Alaska kid there is a choice to make: stay here or go south. That is why Alaska kids should go see "Winesburg: Small Town Life," which is opening at Perseverance Theatre this weekend. The play is a lot of things, including a study of that very classic Alaska kid question.

"Winesburg" tells the story of a young newspaper reporter in a small town who, after learning the truth about the lives of many adults who have stayed there, eventually decides to leave. The play deals with this interesting idea of "the grotesque," which is what people become when they hold on to ideas they had as teenagers and never really change.

Not that I am making any comparisons, but Winesburg is isolated, provincial and people there have a tendency to blow small things out of proportion. George Willard, the young reporter, is rooted in Winesburg by his family, but at the same time as the play goes on it becomes increasingly apparent that he can't accomplish his dream of being a writer there, despite the fact the trippy little town provides him with plenty of good material.

Anybody who grew up here and says they don't think about the stay-or-go issue is either on Prozac or lying. The fact is, you can't make a decision to stay in hometown Alaska without thinking a little bit about how all the people you went to college with Outside are 1. probably lawyers for movie stars, successful magazine writers or pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia, or 2. living somewhere a lemon doesn't cost $1 and you can shop for clothes without going on the Internet.

Still, Alaska is like no place else. You can pretty much decide to do anything here and become successful at it, if for no other reason than lack of competition. And it is beautiful; where else are eagles more common than pigeons?

So, here's the question of the week: is Alaska like Winesburg?

Kevin Kuhlke, who wrote the play, grew up in a small town in Kansas and left because he felt he couldn't do what he wanted to do there. But now, after many years in the New York theater world, here he is doing a residency at a small- town theater, opening a play about a small town.

The Kuhlke theory about Juneau is that it is so isolated and extreme, (he compared it to Iceland) that we are driven to create, simply to improve the quality of life. Juneau is like an oasis of artistic activity, rather than a boring little blah town. In Winesburg or the town where Kuhlke grew up in Kansas, people are on the road system, and they don't have the motivation to create activity.

Zach Falcon grew up in Juneau and plays Ed Hanby in the play, a bartender with a low emotional I.Q. Falcon's theory is that individuals in Winesburg, not the isolation of the town itself, create artistic paralysis.

"There is always a difference in a small town between people who could be anywhere and work at whatever they want and people who can't be anywhere else," he told me. "There are people in the play who are stuck and there are people who could go off and do anything, work anywhere, be fulfilled. I think that being stuck in a small town is less a circumstance of small town than it is a circumstance of individual attitude."

I found the Zach Falcon theory very comforting, but I go back and forth on whether Alaska is a fertile oasis of creativity or just a cold, dark resort for the crazy, criminal, and chronically conservative.

Anyway, for giggles, for the rest of this column we'll go with fertile creativity oasis. To take full advantage of it this weekend, you might see "The War Photographer," a documentary about photographer James Nachtwey's work in Kosovo, Indonesia and Palestine playing this weekend at the Goldtown Nickelodeon. You might also go to one of Christine Antenbring's concerts. She is a celebrated mezzo-soprano from Canada giving performances this Saturday and next Saturday. That's it for the week. Thanks for reading.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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