by Chad Jones of The Oakland Tribune, published August 30, 2001
Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio: Tales of the Grotesque"
four stars Word
By Chad Jones
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.
"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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
or call (925) 416-4853.