Kuhlke's 'Winesburg' an idiosyncratic jewel

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" has been a hot item lately. It bombed on Broadway back in '58, but an award-winning adaptation was staged in San Francisco in 2001, and it was turned into a musical at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater last year.

On StageBy Michael Christenson.

"Winesburg: Small Town Life" by Perseverance Artist-in-Residence Kevin Kuhlke is an idiosyncratic jewel from the Winesburg mine.

Rather than being an adaptation of Anderson's book, "Winesburg: Small Town Life" is merely inspired by "Winesburg, Ohio." The most notable change is that it's set about a generation after "Winesburg, Ohio." Kuhlke has exercised considerable artistic freedom, bringing in the historical elements of prohibition and women's suffrage.

The other major modification is the tone. "Winesburg, Ohio" is an elegy in a minor key, while "Winesburg: Small Town Life" is a comedy, albeit a dark one.

But enough about what this play is not. The play is great.

First of all, the set is a masterpiece. Sheila Wyne (who also has an installation in the gallery) has created a fantastic design that simultaneously evokes nostalgia and decay. Enormous weeds dominate the set, with one streetlight like the first strange, malignant mutation of a new race of weeds sprouting far off stage left. There is a repeated window design on the top level, and a deconstructed doorway, enforcing the notion that the residents of Winesburg, although they may have occasional flashes of insight into their lives, are unable to cross the portal into their dreams.

Light Designer Daniel J. Anteau illuminates the lower half of the stage primarily in yellows and blues, and creates an artistically apt twilight effect in Elizabeth Willard's bedroom on the upper level using the warm sepia tones of the set with reds and blues.

The original score by Heaven Phillips alternates barbershop quartet with George Winston-esque solo piano. The a cappella songs suffered from a touch too much reverb, but the piano pieces had a crystalline presence.

Now back to the story. In one sense, it's a coming-of-age story of George Willard's (Jake Waid) 17th year, exploring "the conflicts of life as the necessary transition points of the individual on his way to maturity and harmony," to quote philosopher and cultural historian Wilhelm Dilthey.

George has plenty of conflicts. He gets played for a sap by a girl (Belle, played by Sara Waisanen) who uses him to make her incommunicative beau (Ed Handby, played by Zach Falcon) jealous. George gets bonked in the head at a bar by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, being a teenager, he has some issues to work out with his parents.

Also, since none of the inhabitants of Winesburg seem to be able to talk to anyone except George, "Winesburg: Small Town Life" turns out to be the story of the whole town, too. George is the conduit through which the town tells its dreams.

Director Peter DuBois seamlessly integrates the cast into providing a great ensemble performance, from newcomer Amelia Rose Lorenz to old hands like Gary Waid. "Winesburg: Small Town Life" allows each their moment to shine. Katie Jensen who plays George's mother, certainly maximizes her turn in the spotlight.

Daniel Reaume is frighteningly convincing as a drunken, murderous, belligerent sociopath, and Patrick Moore is touching as a drunken, misanthropic "beautiful monster." One of my favorite lines in the play is when he mutters, "Move around or something. You're making me dizzy standing still."

Darius Jones is particularly amusing as Joe Welling, a man possessed by his hyperactive imagination. As the archetypal fool, he gets to utter most of the crazy truths of the play, including "The whole world is on fire" and "Dinosaurs are what makes love possible."

In terms of this theater season, and its theme of "Go Big," there are obvious parallels to "The Glass Menagerie." That play dealt with escaping the claustrophobia of the family, while "Winesburg: Small Town Life" deals with escaping small town life.

Even if you didn't grow up in the Midwest, the characters are intimately, if sometimes uncomfortably, familiar. Their tribulations and the foibles are instantaneously recognizable. "Winesburg: Small Town Life" is a portrait of where we live.

Michael Christenson wonders what there is not to like about a play about a journalist where all the men wear bowlers.

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