Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Winesburg, Ohio at the Arden Theatre Company

Darren Michael Hengst
and cast

With Winesburg, Ohio, the Arden Theatre has accomplished an amazing feat. They have taken stories about some conflicted, unpleasant people and turned them into a beautiful, moving piece of musical theater.

Based on Sherwood Anderson's episodic 1919 novel about the dark, hidden nature of a seemingly quaint fictitious town, Winesburg, Ohio opens with a chorus singing of the town's residents: "Each had a secret, a terrible secret ... their secrets made them grotesque/All of the people of the world became grotesque." The program even refers to the list of musical numbers as "The Book of the Grotesques." Yet, while Anderson may have viewed the populace that way, in this stage version even the most desperate denizen is sympathetic. The adaptors (Eric Rosen, Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman) have fashioned insightful depictions of how the people of Winesburg turned out the way they did. As a result, nearly every one of the villagers has a moment that can make you laugh or move you deeply.

Take, for instance, the segment in act one called "Adventure - concerning Alice Hindman." Alice (Dawn Falato, in an intense, focused performance) finds love at 16 with Ned (Ben Dibble), but Ned moves to Chicago to find fortune. Ned's letters home to Alice become shorter and shorter, and in Terrence J. Nolen's effective staging, we get to "read between the lines" and see Ned fall prey to the temptations of big city life. Finally, Alice comes to realize that "Your dreams can never be your own/Many people must live and die alone" - and she acts out her rage and anguish in a way that her small town would never approve of.

Alice's saga is a familiar tale of love won and lost, with a bleak twist added at the end, yet the tale is not depressing but mesmerizing. All of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio are like that - by adding tiny but revealing details, the authors and the actors make you feel as if you know the whole story of a person's life, even though a tale like Alice's is telescoped into only about five minutes.

Winesburg, Ohio's score has the warm feel of folk music, with fiddle, mandolin and banjo accompanying the singers. Yet this music is not simple; it is often stately, sometimes ornate, and, like the people of Winesburg, complicated. There are very few applause breaks at the end of songs; the score seems almost operatic in its scope, with recurring themes for different characters. There may not be any tunes you come out humming, but the music is haunting and memorable nonetheless.

Connecting the tales - well, most of the tales - is the story of George Willard (Brian Hissong), an 18-year-old member of an established Winesburg family. Through his eyes - and the eyes of "The Writer" (Andrew White), an omniscient narrator with a secret connection to George - we see how the hopes and dreams of a young person can come to blossom in Winesburg, even if a small town can never satisfy them. Those aspirations are best told in the story of George's dying mother Elizabeth (Derin Altay, in a poignant performance). Reminiscing, she sees her younger self (the vibrant Elisa Matthews) and how she had to make compromises that, decades later, she still cannot forgive herself for.

For an illustration of how efficiently Nolen stages this story, there's no better example than how he dramatizes young Elizabeth's dreams of becoming an actress: we see her sit enraptured as two actors stage a sword fight ... then take a bow ... then move on ... then stage the sword fight in the exact same way ... then bow again. In just a few swift moments, we come to know exactly why Elizabeth has fallen in love with the stage.

Winesburg, Ohio is full of sharp, fully realized performances. Among the standouts are Lesley Bevan as a schoolteacher full of barely suppressed desires; Ben Dibble in several roles, but most notably as a preacher whose life goes awry when the schoolteacher enters his life; Darren Michael Hengst, who shines as two very different types of dreamers; and Tony Freeman, who gives the show's best comic performance as Joe Welling, the excitable coach of the Winesburg baseball team. And everyone in the cast is a superb singer.

Daniel Ostling's set design suggests an entire town but shows little more than the windows of the town's houses - windows that are sometimes clear, sometimes expressively opaque. As with the music, lyrics and book, the minimal scenery tells us all that we need to know about the town of Winesburg.

Winesburg, Ohio does falter in a few minor areas - most notably in Hissong's bland performance as George, who comes across as a cipher compared to the fully fleshed-out people around him. His tentative romance with Helen (Kim Carson) doesn't help much; another woman in town seems to be a better match for him, and his failure to pursue her makes him seem not so much naïve as ineffectual. (What kind of musical tries to make you root for the guy who can't get the girl?) What's more, the "big decision" that he makes in the final scene would be more compelling if it hadn't been foreshadowed repeatedly for the previous two hours. That, and the lack of a buoyant closing number, make the ending somewhat unsatisfying.

But these are minor complaints about a show that reveals a lot about the human condition and gives you characters and musical moments that will remain with you. A lot of the people in Winesburg, Ohio can't wait to catch a train out of town - but if you visit, you'll wish your trip was longer.

Winesburg, Ohio runs through Sunday, November 6, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street in Philadelphia. Post-show discussions are scheduled on Sunday, October 16; Thursday, October 20; Wednesday, October 26; and Sunday, October 30. Ticket prices range from $27 to $45. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, online at or in person at the box office.

Winesburg, Ohio
Based on the novel by Sherwood Anderson
Book and Lyrics by Eric Rosen
With Music and Additional Lyrics by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman
Conceived and Developed in Collaboration with Jessica Thebus
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Scenic Design ... Daniel Ostling
Costume Design ... Rosemarie McKelvey
Lighting Design ... Dennis Parichy
Sound Designer ... Jorge Cousineau
Music Director/Orchestrator ... Thomas Murphy
Choreographer ... Myra Bazell
Assistant Director ... Justin Jain
Stage Manager ... John David Flak

CAST (in order of appearance):
Young Elizabeth ... Elisa Matthews
The Writer/The Stranger ... Andrew White
Elizabeth Willard ... Derin Altay
Tom Willard/Father ... Peter Schmitz
George Willard ... Brian Hissong
Kate Swift ... Lesley Bevan
Alice Hindman/Woman ... Dawn Falato
Seth Richmond/Enoch Robinson/Boy/Townperson 1 ... Darren Michael Hengst
Wing Biddlebaum/Ed Handby/Abner Groff/Young Tom ... William Zielinski
Helen White ... Kim Carson
Joe Welling/Man ... Tony Freeman
Reverend Hartman/Ned/The Actor/Townperson 2 ... Ben Dibble
Young Woman with Violin ... Phoebe Silva

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Tim Dunleavy

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