Wilder, a musical written by then-Duke playwright Erin Cressida Wilson and Jack Herrick and Mark Craver of the Red Clay Ramblers, opened Oct. 26 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, the second stage at Playwrights Horizons. The celebrated off-Broadway hothouse for developing playwrights has an enviable track record over 30 years, having germinated such shows as Lobby Hero, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Sunday in the Park with George, Driving Miss Daisy and The Heidi Chronicles.
On Halloween night, eight blocks away, Hillsborough novelist Allan Gurganus' Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All began previews as a one-woman show for Ellen Burstyn at the venerable Longacre Theater, just off the north end of Times Square. It's the same theater where Burstyn--then named Ellen McCrae--got her first role on Broadway, in a Sam Levene sex farce called Fair Game.
Years in the works; opening the same week. One already cut short by New York critics; the other awaiting its verdict as we go to press. In short, a tale of two shows, two roads to the Big Apple, and--hopefully--two different receptions when they got there.
Wilder would strike a familiar note with regional audiences for two reasons. Its initial incarnation was as the play Cross-Dressing in the Depression, one of only two works by Wilson that were seen in any incarnation in Durham during her tenure at Duke. (Wilson took up a teaching post at Brown University this fall.)
In both versions, a man towards the end of his life remembers an odd childhood of destitution, loneliness, provisional shelter and love. When circumstances force Wilder's mother to the streets and his father off to prison, young Wilder finds uncertain shelter in the attic of a whorehouse in Denver, Colorado. The two works detail his loneliness, the cold, and the austere memories of first attraction, sexual awakening and love--memories, though slight, which ultimately sustain the title character for the rest of his life. In many ways, both detail a story of how life persists even in a psychological desert, an emotional wasteland. Regional playgoers would also recognize on sight the character's sidebar memory, late in Wilder, as a naval officer who, to keep equipment functional, began transmitting poems late at night, by morse code, to a sailor on another distant ship--until the night came when the signal wasn't returned. This metaphor of distance, reaching out, and disembodied desire, was the center of the only other work Durham audiences saw from Wilson, The Bay of Naples, a one-act produced during Duke's New Plays Festival in 1999.
It is of no small significance that both tales are based on the memories of Wilson's father.
Though Wilson, Herrick and Craver were regional neighbors, it took New York director Lisa Portes to get the three to meet. While directing a Duke Theater Previews production of the musical Kudzu in 1998, Portes gave Wilson's script to Herrick, who was Kudzu's lyricist. Development followed at McCarter Theatre, Cape Cod Theater Project, and this summer at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
The New York premiere got an additional bonus when John Cullum, fresh from a standout role in the musical Urinetown, signed on to play the aging Wilder.
Almost all of the critics savaged Wilder. Only Newsday's Linda Winer praised it as a "peculiar, sensual, oddly enchanting little musical" which "lingers under the eyelids like a dream." The rest all but uniformly disparaged a pretentious plot, awkward lyrics and uncomfortable sexuality, particularly in the doubling of the roles of Wilder's mother and his first love, Melora. Marilyn Stasio's attack in Variety was the most personal, terming the musical's creators "self-satisfied" and Wilson "self-infatuated."
The performance I caught in its closing week left me puzzled. In my years of theater-going I've seen a number of shows (in New York and North Carolina) that more deserved a spanking than a review. Though far from perfect, Wilder wasn't one of them.
It's curious to think of a work as sparse as Wilder is on so many levels as being excessive. Still, it whips back and forth between the starved and the sumptuous.
Since the self-billed chamber musical relies on three actors to convey all characters in its world, the arguably too-lean staging has actors crossing family, generational and sexual ties. Cullum, who plays old Wilder, also portrays his errant father and a "john" to Lacey Kohl's Melora, the prostitute in the bordello where Wilder lives--and Wilder's first love. Before that, Kohl has also defined the role of Wilder's mother, Jessie.
A thin cast reflects a thin world--perhaps the sum total of people the old Wilder ever trusted or loved in his life. The symbolism is granted, but the choice remains too thin to dramatically sustain this show.
Less problematic is the stripped-down libretto, whose haunting refrain, in "Blow Out the Candle," details lonesomeness and longing in equal parts, while the hormonal absurdities of "Skater Scout" are funny and bitter.
The one place where we experience plenty in this work is in its prose. Wilson's poetic imagery suffuses her character's memories, and locates whatever beauty it can find in the forbidding conditions of one child's life. She seems driven to have beauty redeem such loneliness.
But we are ultimately struck by the sparseness, the thin threads of the tales that ultimately do not stitch a man's life together. Wilder's individual anecdotes may try to reach across decades, a continent and a war, but they do not span a hole in the title character's soul, a breach in the center of his closing life. In large part that empty space is never measured. We're left to assume the years of blight and solitude after Wilder's attic years, and to fill in far too much of the character's potential, his fall and aftermath.
Wilder probably suffered at its critics' hands because it was a speculative work--a poetic chamber musical for three, a tantalizing reach towards an experimental dramatic form not yet fully realized. But when the audience must speculate--and fill in--the missing center of the title character's life, Wilder finally asks too much.
Most works don't end up on Broadway as an artistic afterthought following a robust life in literature and on television. But when veteran producer-screenwriter Martin Tahse read Allan Gurganus' Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All during its eight-month reign on the New York Times bestseller list in 1989, he knew one thing. "It was obviously a one-woman show," Tahse says.
The novel details the conversations the title character, 99-year old Lucy Marsden, has in a charity home with a woman who never talks and is only described as someone who is going to write a paper on her. The conversation is the summary of a Southern century, and one woman's realizations about the sum of her life's rich experiences.
When Tahse wrote Gurganus with his ideas, the author sums up his reaction in one word: "Finally."
"I had other people say we'll have the captain, Castalia [the complex African-American servant], the children--you know, the Sound of Music without the music--with cannons blaring in the background," Gurganus laughs as he recalls. "I'd been waiting for somebody to come up with this idea."
After conferring with Gurganus, all Tahse had to do was reduce a 900-plus page epic to a two-hour stage play. For one actor.
"After I read the novel four or five times, I came to realize that Lucy's marriage is the spine of the book," Tahse says. "She's actually comparing her marriage as a parallel to the Civil War. At one point she says, 'Our first battle is what I called my honeymoon. It was the storming of Fort Sumter. Guess who played the fort.'"
Once realizing the book's spine, "you go through and see what's not essential," Tahse says. "A lot of the book made it easy for me."
Castalia's 90-page backstory, and Shirley's 78-page history, were gleaned for information the play needed, and excised. "Then of course I overwrote," Tahse recalls. "There's so much, you wish you could put everything in--such marvelous imagery and colloquial speech."
The result was a script "about 50-60 pages too long," Tahse says. "The editing was really the writing of the play: How do you cut and still save it?
"It wasn't easy," he admits. "It took me eight months."
With initial script in hand, Gurganus and Tahse tackled the question of personnel: Who was the one woman for their one-woman show?
"We both made a short list of actresses we'd most like to do the role," Gurganus says. "The list included some kinky people, like Maggie Smith or Holly Hunter. But Ellen Burstyn was our common denominator, so we said she'd be the one."
"She's a great physical actress, which I respect, and it's required for this part," Gurganus says. "It amazes me that on matinee days she's on stage alone for four hours. You have to be an incredibly strong specimen, a very powerful animal in your native endowment to do it."
Both playwright and author tell the same story of her acceptance; reading the first act of the script, alone, in her Cape Cod garden, calling her agent immediately to accept, and having a neighbor ask her later that afternoon, "Who were all those people in your garden this afternoon?" It's the kind of story theater legends are made of.
The show's San Diego tryouts resulted in a mixed bouquet of reviews and a mention in Time. The show has promise--and problems--to sort out. The opening, which repeats the novel's first lines verbatim, weakens the character, and the first act drags. Since Burstyn has her hands full mastering the script's 14,000 words, character and directing refinements are going slower than anticipated.
"It was a bit too long," Tahse admits. "The second act was zooming along like a locomotive, but work had to be done on the first act ... But that's what you're out of town for."
According to Gurganus, the main changes after San Diego "were really all in the first 10 minutes." A new beginning was crafted, which framed Lucy's conversation as a story told at a fundraiser for her nursing home. The first act was tightened. On Halloween night the show went up.
In the performance we saw last week in New York, that barn-burner of a second act is still stronger than the first. Burstyn's persona as Lucy is folksy, acerbic, anything but saccharine; her energy is substantial without drawing attention to itself, a display of solid craft without ostentation. But Burstyn's sheer life force, leaves one question unresolved--is she too robust to convince as the 99-year-old sole survivor?
Gurganus claims his hopes for the play don't focus so much on the Broadway run. What's his real wish?
"That Samuel French will publish the play," he says. "And at every community theater in America and the world, the reigning dame ... who founded the theater, and has been Mother Courage; no, first Hedda Gabler; no, first Maria Von Trapp; no, first Dolly Levy ... who has all this life experience and technique and is pretty much sick of having second-rate other actors on stage, and still has enough marbles to memorize 14,000 words--that she will do this everywhere in the world. That," he laughs, "would be the ultimate fantasy."