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Article by Robert Hall of the Piedmont Post, published September 11, 2001

In the Hearts of the Heartland

Winesburg, Ohio, now at the Julia Morgan Theatre, is a must-see show.

Like Berkeley Rep's powerful Laramie Project, it reveals the hidden life of an American town through the voices of its inhabitants. Like Laramie, it's set on an almost bare stage in order to intensity the focus on peoples' souls. And like Laramie, it is one of the most satisfying productions to grace the Bay Area this year.

Winesburg, Ohio is a fortunate collaboration between San Francisco's Word for Word and Berkeley's Shotgun Players, based, of course, on Sherwood Anderson's famous 1919 story collection set in a mythic Midwestern town, of which the young newspaperman, William Faulkner, exclaimed in 1925, "These people live and breathe, they are beautiful!"

Word/Shotgun's method is to tell four of Anderson's stories in polyphony, ten actors sharing readings while performing multiple parts.

Impeccably directed by Delia MacDougall and Stephanie Hunt, the actors are nothing short of perfect at hitting notes of sorrow and joy, irony and despair. One of the great pleasures they provide is language spoken with meticulous care. These people respect storytelling and words.

Winesburg is deeply moving as it uncovers secret frustrations and desires. As Joe Welling in the first tale, Clive Worsley is a sly and funny whirligig who flattens everyone in his path with the breezy chatter that blows out of him. As the longing, neurotic Louise Bentley in the second story, Beth Donohue touchingly mixes comedy and tragedy. David Cramer makes philosophical Dr. Reefy in the third tale a wise man whose marriage to a younger woman is not the foolishness the town thinks it is. And as Wing Biddlebaum, tormented by himself and others because he touches boys, Adrian Elfenbaum uses eloquent hands to bring us to a surprising sympathy.

The equally good supporting cast includes Patrick Dooley, Amaya Alonso Hallifax, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Jeff Elam, Nancy Katherine Shelby, and JoAnne Winter. The lighting by Jim Cave is as clear as a spring morning, and the costumes by Valera Coble are trim and unfussy. The spare but eloquent set by Alex Nichols, in which pine tables and L-shaped boxes stand in for fences and doors, desks and wagons, evokes an entire town.

In fact, you begin to feel you belong to that town. Perhaps that's because it's the place in which we all live, where we seek but often fail to find meaning, connection. It's a town Chekhov evoked and a town in which Jay Gatsby would have discovered fellow dreamers.

Winesburg, Ohio plays only through this Sunday, September 16. It's an early highlight of the season.

(c) 2001 Piedmont Post


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