Winesburg: A Small Town Epic

World premiere of play opens Friday

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

Like a Norman Rockwell vision of a small Midwestern town in the 1920s, in "Winesburg: Small Town Life," the hollyhocks grow tall and the paint peels from the shingled homes, young couples stroll through the graveyard at sunset and men debate politics over checkers at the corner bar.

Hidden beneath this exterior, however, townspeople conceal broken hearts, private madness and unrealized dreams.

"We have been saying 'Winesburg' is like 'Our Town' meets 'Twin Peaks,' " said Peter DuBois, who is directing the world premiere of the play, which opens this weekend at Perseverance Theatre. "Winesburg: Small Town Life," written by Perseverance playwright-in-residence Kevin Kuhlke, is based on a collection of stories by Sherwood Anderson published in 1919.

" 'Winesburg' is more of a kind of tweaked version of a small-town story because Anderson is willing to take you to those darker places of the human soul," DuBois said.

At its core, "Winesburg" spins a coming-of-age tale of George Willard, a 17-year-old reporter for a small-town newspaper, the Winesburg Eagle. George finds himself privy to the many private stories about the lives and secret longings of townspeople, and in the process of the play all of the stories influence him, pushing him to leave town and become an artist.

"Winesburg: Small Town Life," opens at 8 p.m. Friday, March 14, at Perseverance Theatre and runs through April 6 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 6 p.m. most Sundays. On the final Sunday, the show begins at 2 p.m.

Distinct, strange and complex characters crowd "Winesburg." Among them are George's mother Elizabeth (played by Katie Jensen) who stays confined to her bed, obsessed with the career in the theater she never had; Wing Biddlebaum (played by Patrick Moore), a sensitive, bookish teacher who has repressed so many feelings his hands can't stop twitching; Wash Williams (also played by Patrick Moore), the town drunk who never let himself recover from a broken heart; Jesse Bentley, (Gary Wade) a farmer who has become such a fundamentalist Christian he allows his faith to justify murder; and Joe Welling, (Darius Jones) a friend of George, who has so many ideas he can almost never accomplish anything.

"In a way, there is something really beautiful in each of these characters - there is something really moving in their deep happiness and deep sorrow, it is both humane and universal," DuBois said. "We did a workshop in New York with all these New York hot-shot actors and this one actor, as we were walking out, said, 'This is one of the most humane plays I've ever read.' "

Many of the characters are examples of what Anderson called "the grotesque." In his book, the author explained that young people latch on to certain truths, such as fundamentalist Christianity for Jesse Bentley, which they never let go of. As they grow older, the ideas become exaggerated or "grotesque."

"You grab on to something when you are younger and it becomes the foundation for your values and it expands into something larger than you can't control and that becomes your downfall," DuBois explained.

"Winesburg" also examines the relationships between men. DuBois said the play deals with three main male figures in George's life: fathers, mentors and male friends. The play also looks at the things that shaped adult male identity in the early part of the last century.

"What was interesting about exploring male relationships in a period when our values as a nation were quite different, was that in a lot of the points of view exposed in the play there was a real acceptance of a kind of misogyny and chauvinism," DuBois said. "I encouraged people to take those things to the extreme when you get to the point where they just become absurd."

Another deep theme in the play is artistic paralysis, much like many of the characters in James Joyce's "Dubliners," a book of short sketches that came out a few years before Anderson published "Winesburg, Ohio." Many of the older characters have regrets and try to influence George not to make their mistakes. His mother Elizabeth, for example, wanted to become an actress, but ended up married in Winesburg to a man she doesn't love.

"She does not want the same thing that happens to her to happen to George, and all of her energies go toward pushing him out," Jensen explains.

Only his mother's death relieves George of the feelings of family obligation that keep him in Winesburg.

Throughout the play, George faces the question many small town young people ask themselves: Should I stay with my family where things are familiar or should I leave and travel into a large world of unknown possibilities?

"I found this play really is relevant to growing up in Juneau and the difficulties he faces in learning to become an adult in his community and the decision about whether to stay or leave," said Zach Falcon, who grew up in Juneau and plays Ed Hanby, a bartender who can't express his feelings.

DuBois said working on the play made him reflect on living in Juneau, and the dynamics of small town life.

"I think the reason for the making the setting of 'Winesburg' a small town has to do with intimacy," DuBois said. "The kind of intimacy you experience living in a small town is different than in a city. You know people intimately and you know what presses people's buttons. You are more tolerant of eccentricities. And, the tensions and the dramas of a small town take on epic proportions."

• Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.



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