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Review by Chad Jones of The Oakland Tribune, published August 30, 2001

Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio: Tales of the Grotesque"

four stars Word perfect

By Chad Jones
Oakland Tribune

Berkeley's Shotgun Players and San Francisco's Word for Word, two of our most consistently interesting and adventurous theater companies, have wisely combined resources to turn a great work of American literature into a supremely engaging evening of theater.

Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," published in 1919, is a novelistic collection of short stories that attempts to portray the citizens of a small town that could be described as anything but quaint _ queasy is more like it.

Bitterness, regret, small-mindedness, isolation and crippling loneliness are but a few of the emotional shadows that darken most of the 24 stories in Anderson's book. Strangely, Anderson's tales, though tinged with sadness, are not bleak. His characters experience moments of epiphany and insight that make their stories more than just minor dramas.

This particular quality, more than Anderson's simple, direct writing, makes "Winesburg" especially ripe for the stage.

It's a wonder that in its eight years of turning short works of fiction into fully staged plays, Word for Word has not explored "Winesburg," but perhaps it was worth the wait to see this excellent company join forces with the equally energetic Shotgun Players.

The resulting stage version of "Winesburg" runs through Sunday at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco and then moves over to Berkeley's Julia Morgan Theater for a two-week run beginning next Wednesday.

Working its usual literary/theatrical magic, Word for Word has transformed an emotionally complex work of fiction into a thrilling piece of theater without changing a word of the original text.

Director Delia MacDougall, who helmed Word for Word's inspired "Oil!" last season, has selected four of Anderson's stories for her 85-minute production. She has altered the order in which they appear in the book so that the show begins happily and steadily moves into murkier territory.

"A Man of Ideas," like each of the stories, is about an outsider in a town full of seeming insiders. Joe Welling (Clive Worsley) is a peculiar man prone to seizures whenever a thought overwhelms him. The titular man of ideas, he moves at a faster pace than most of the other townsfolk and is often an object of derision.

More aware of his outsider status than he appears, Joe is a crafty man who ends up getting everything he wants, including an unbeatable town baseball team and a lady friend.

Told with zesty good humor, this story introduces a concept that runs through each of the evening's "chapters." Whenever the townspeople assemble, they tend to whisper and cluck and chitter like animals, creating an aural impression of small-town gossip that sounds like a menacing wind.

In the second story, "Surrender," the townspeople represent a fantasy world for farm girl Louise Bentley (beautifully played by Beth Donohue), whose father sends her into town during the week to go to school. Full of longing and convinced the rest of the world is smarter and more socially adept than she is, Louise spends most of her time barricaded in her room poring over school books.

Her one distraction is John Hardy (Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley), a boy she fantasizes about but can barely bring herself to speak to.

A portrait of sexual awakening warped by fear and alienation, "Surrender" provides the evening's most poignant moments.

"Paper Pills," about a doctor (David Cramer) who manages to find isolated moments of happiness in an otherwise detached life, leads directly into "Hands," the show's finale.

A virtual outcast on the outskirts of town, Wing Biddlebaum (Adrian Elfenbaum) is infamous for his always-fluttering hands. Once a schoolmaster in another state, Wing was nearly lynched by angry parents after one of his students made false accusations of sexual abuse.

Without resorting to sentiment and without ever neatly tying up his tales, Anderson manages to celebrate human frailty and courage while condemning insidious pettiness and small-town insularity.

Simply staged with wood blocks and three large wooden tables that serve as walls, doors, wagons and front porches, set designer Alex Nichols manages to convey a time and a place that, like Anderson's prose, doesn't need to bother with unnecessary details.

Word for Word and Shotgun Players' "Winesburg, Ohio" is a troubled place, but one well worth a visit.


You can e-mail Chad Jones at or call (925) 416-4853.


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