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Chicago by John Olson

About Face sets Anderson’s
Winesburg, Ohio to music

Winesburg, Ohio
George Willard (Ryan Gardner) shares a drink with “a Stranger”
(Andrew White)

Winesburg is a town in which it’s difficult to keep secrets, to be sure, but knowing a person’s secret isn’t the same as knowing the person. In Winesburg, the only person who seems to be interested in learning the truth of his neighbors is young George Willard, a recent high school graduate working as a reporter for the local newspaper. Though he’s told this position can pave the way for him to become a pillar of the community, his ambitions are greater. He becomes a confidant to many in the community and a keen observer of human nature so that he can gain material for the short stories he hopes to publish.

At first glance, you’d expect this show to be a slice of American social history, a picture of small town life just before the turn of the 20th century. Unless you know the Sherwood Anderson novel on which it’s based, which I didn’t, you might be surprised to learn the universal truths in the material. The life choices available to rural Americans in an era before electronic communication or inexpensive travel were limited, but Anderson’s tales showed the difficulty of making good decisions even for those characters that ventured beyond Winesburg. The material still resonates today and is the basis of a touching world premiere musical presented by the About Face Theatre company, in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre.

Eric Rosen’s book and lyrics dramatize twelve of the twenty-one stories in Anderson’s book, while expanding the story of George’s family to provide a more detailed throughline. The music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman (the composers also contributed “additional lyrics”) has its roots in 19th century American folk music, art songs and hymns. It’s melodic and elegant, perfectly capturing the longing and occasional joy of its characters. Anderson’s spare prose is perfectly suited to musical theater and the creators have successfully exploded his characters through music and verse.

After a prologue taken from that of the novel’s (both called “The Book of the Grotesque”), The Writer (Andrew White), George at a later age, introduces us to George (Ryan Gardner), his father Tom (Matthew Lon Walker) and his terminally ill mother Elizabeth (Jane Blass). Death hovers over this family and indeed the entire town. Not only is Elizabeth dying, but so is Tom’s business, the only hotel in a town that no longer attracts many visitors. Both The Writer and Elizabeth observe their younger selves onstage, as played by different performers. Fans of Stephen Sondheim will recognize this device from Follies but if they’re like me, they’ll take it as homage rather than imitation.

The first vignette concerns Wing Biddlebaum (Gary Wingert), a former teacher who fled to Winesburg twenty years after being falsely accused of molesting a male student. George, Wing’s only friend, recounts Wing’s history in a flashback in which the cast members, who play multiple roles throughout the show, assume the parts of Wing’s students and their parents without benefit of makeup or wardrobe changes.

Some of the other stories focus on people with whom George has greater involvement. Seth Richmond (David Bryson) is a rival of George for the affections of Helen White (Erica Elam), and he leaves town rather than face this competition. Three of the stories concern Elizabeth Willard, who reflects upon her youth (watching her younger self played by Kristina Martin) and her decision to marry Tom against the wishes of her father. “The Strength of God” concerns an unfulfilled triangle of forbidden love between the young schoolteacher Kate Swift (touchingly played by Lesley Bevan) who desires former student George, and who is desired by the married Reverend Curtis Hartman (Jeff Parker, mining the tortured clergyman part for all the comedy and pathos it’s worth).

George has more distance from some of the other characters he observes. Alice Hindman (Kristina Martin), the daughter of the general store owner, loses her only love when he moves to Chicago. The diminutive Joe Welling, “a man of ideas,” is a town oddball who achieves respect when he surprisingly coaches the baseball team to its first victory in years. The high-energy song and dance depicting that victory is a high point of the show. Jeff Dumas, whom I’d seen before only in minor roles in Sondheim’s Bounce at the Goodman and in Pacific Overtures and Sunday in the Park with George at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a standout as this little big man who could. He also plays Enoch Robinson, a young artist who moves to New York but is unable to cope with the hostility of the big city.

The emotional core of the show lies with Elizabeth Willard, the only character for whom we see something close to a complete life. Despite her painful illness and her remorse over her life choices, she bravely tries to be strong and resist death. In Jane Blass’s excellent performance, she’s simply heartbreaking.

Director Jessica Thebus has a strong sense of visual composition, making inventive use of Geoffrey M. Curley’s simple L-shaped set, a façade of weathered wood that represents the homes and storefronts of Winesburg. Together with Rosen, she is responsible for the musical staging as well – energetic in Joe Welling’s baseball game and threatening in Wing Biddlebaum’s tragic persecution. Her semi-presentational direction creates the sort of detached compassion that George would likely have felt toward his neighbors. Curley’s set and the detailed period costumes of Janice Pytel successfully evoke rural America in the 1890s and enhance the piece’s mood through their dark earth tones.

This Winesburg, previously staged in 2002 as a one-act piece, is in its world premiere as expanded into a two-act musical. Though it will benefit from further development – the large amount of stage time given to George’s mother Elizabeth seems more than necessary and is a bit repetitive – it’s already a strong piece. Future productions might benefit from a different take on George. As played by Ryan Gardner and directed by Ms. Thebus, he seems too naïve and inexperienced to possess the powers of observation and empathy to possess the insight of Anderson’s narrator. It will take a more nuanced performance than this one to suggest the full soul of this young man.

Even with this weakness at its core, the ensemble cast performs with so much precision and conviction that the piece delivers an undeniable emotional punch in the gut. It promises to be a hit with audiences who believe in theater music as a means of heightening dramatic emotion and telling a story in a dimension beyond verbal and visual. Fans of musical theater written by the likes of Sondheim and Adam Guettel will be very happy to visit Winesburg. Winesburg, Ohio plays Wednesdays through Sundays through July 18th at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. To purchase tickets, call the Steppenwolf box office at 312-335-1650. For more information visit www.steppenwolf.org.


Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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