Everything about Ketti Frings's 1957 play Look Homeward, Angel (based, of course, on Thomas Wolfe's novel) practically screams "old-fashioned" -- three-acts, semi-autobiographical, lots of characters, a will-he-or-won't-he-or-how-will-he-leave-home story. What a pleasure that The St. Bart's Players production, directed by Chris Catt, is charming, funny, and yes, touching.
And it has a dark side -- Thomas Wolfe's early life was not an easy one, and when his adult dramatic stand-in first appears, he is taking a slug from a flask. The passing of time hasn't made life good for Eugene (Ken Altman), but all the conflicts, hazards, setbacks, and pleasures reside in his memory, and have made him the person he is. The specifics may have changed from 1916, when the play is set, to now, but people are people, and the figuring out who you are, where you fit, what you want, and making your way still resonate strongly.
The Dixieland Boarding House in Altamont, North Carolina, is run by Eliza Gant (Barbara Blomberg), a strong-willed woman who is as tight with a penny as with her emotions, and she enlists her daughter Helen (Renee DePietro) as a cook and sends her youngest son, Eugene (Anthony Mannix), to meet arriving trains and shill for the place. The boarding house residents are a lively bunch theatrically, but actually living with these people, who mostly argue, complain, flirt and kvetch, would be very different. Here the production shows off the virtues of a well-made play -- they are introduced straightforwardly, and with admirable clarity -- characters are sharply delineated in just a few lines of dialogue. This is no mean feat with a cast of 20, and when the play's focus narrows, everyone is still an important part of the whole.
Dreams fly fast and free around the house, family's and boarders' alike. Eugene's brother Ben (Dan Grinko) wants to go off and fight in the war he's read so much about, but his cough is a reality that can't be ignored. Neither can his father (John Saunders) be ignored, drunk and rowdy as usual -- good thing daughter Helen can handle him. Eugene immediately sees Miss Laura James (Amy Daley) as different, and she responds to his overtures of friendship and love in spite of their age difference (she admits to 21, he to 19 - but reality is 23 and 17). That Gene likes trains (even though he hates trolling for customers there) is an obvious symbol -- trains go places -- but the longing to escape is as real in Mannix's performance as is his determination to stay because it's the right thing to do. (Someone should put him in a production of Bus Stop, if a suitable Cherie can be found.)
Also obvious as a symbol is the (titular) marble angel at the father's stonecutting shop, but as more and more is revealed about the family's inner dynamic, the more wrenching and real emotions boil over. (Having the older Eugene sit in for the statue on stage was an effective touch.) Eliza's dream is to get enough money to send Gene to college, and while she's admirable as a businesswoman, she's not stellar as a mother. Blomberg was necessarily strident, but she was also sympathetic, fighting in a world not of her making. Saunders at first seemed a little over-emphatic as the father, but the character and the play supported his choices, especially in the scene with Madame Elizabeth (the wonderful Maryjane L. Baer), a madame of the world's oldest profession.
Most of the play is set in the boardinghouse, represented by five upstage doors (set design Charlie Calvert), but unfortunate sight lines occasionally obscured action at the sides of the stage. Lighting (Elizabeth Gaines) and the color of the set did seem to bathe everything in a golden hue, which made the bright white spot on the stone "angel" most appropriate. Costumes (James E. Crochet) were correct to the period, and the colors matched the glow. If the North Carolina accents came and went, it was still obvious that the Pulitzer Prize committee didn't make a mistake when it rewarded this play in 1957, and there's no dust at all over at the stage at St. Bart's. A trip to the bookstore might be in order too -- Wolfe's novel has over 200 characters.
Also with stellar performances by Veronica Shea, David Pasteelnick, Brian Haggerty, Phil Koeber, Penelope Robb, Jennifer Dzama, Katherine Beitner, Joe Gambino, Susan Carlino Nicholson, Ulises Giberga, Bill McEnaney, and Greg Juliano.
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Copyright 2003 David Mackler