Wilder's last novel goes to stage

`Theophilus North' presents some theatrical challenges

Theater Review

January 28, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's a scene near the beginning of Arena Stage's production of Theophilus North in which actress Valerie Leonard portrays a car. Except for goggles and a scarf, nothing in her costume has any relationship to a car. But when she starts gasping and coughing while kneeling in front of the bentwood chair that serves as the car's seat, Leonard provides an unmistakable depiction of a once jaunty jalopy now on the verge of automotive breakdown.

As created by Leonard, director Mark Cuddy and designer G.W. Mercier, it's a pure Thornton Wilder moment, one of several at the start of Matthew Burnett's stage adaptation of Wilder's final novel. At such moments - another comes when the supporting cast impersonates trees, simply by holding umbrellas aloft - this world premiere succeeds in capturing the spirit of the playwright whose groundbreaking plays, particularly Our Town, reinvented modern stagecraft.

But as Theophilus North progresses, these inspired examples of imaginative staging become fewer and farther between, until, like the jalopy at the beginning, the drama just peters out.

Published two years before his death in 1975, Wilder's final novel is a picaresque, semi-autobiographical tale (or according to some theories, the imaginary biography of Wilder's twin, Theophilus, who died at birth). It takes place in 1926, when 30-year-old Theophilus has quit his teaching job in search of adventure, only to become stranded in Newport, R.I. There he discovers that you don't have to travel the globe to experience the excitement of exploration and enlightenment.

Because of their episodic structure, picaresque novels do not translate easily to the stage; they lack a dramatic arc. This particular novel has an added impediment since Theophilus basically serves as a catalyst, effecting change in those he encounters, while remaining largely unchanged himself. (Burnett actually includes an exchange spelling this out.)

The fact that we remain as engaged as we do is due in large part to Matthew Floyd Miller's winning performance as a youthful, attractive and slightly impudent Theophilus. Even the title character himself seems a tad annoyed by the role of perpetual do-gooder - a man who instills poise in a snooty, sheltered teen-age boy; persuades a headstrong socialite not to elope; frees a wealthy, shut-in old man from the clutches of an avaricious daughter; etc. And, though Miller's Theophilus eventually does learn from his experiences, this revelation is both too little and too late.

A cast of six plays all the other roles, which range from the aforementioned auto to servants and the super rich. Seeing these protean actors go through multiple metamorphoses, however, only emphasizes the protagonist's basic immutability.

Arena's production, a collaborative effort with the Geva Theatre of Rochester, N.Y., where it will have a subsequent run, is the first time the Wilder estate has allowed this 1973 novel to be adapted for the stage. In 1988, however, the book was made into a slight and silly movie, starring Anthony Edwards.

Burnett's stage play comes much closer to the tenor of the novel - for one thing, it overlooks Theophilus' "healing powers," a bizarre twist in the book that was wildly exaggerated on film. In the movie, Theophilus produced a hokey lightning spark whenever he engaged in the laying on of hands.

Yet in the final analysis, a spark of a different kind is exactly what the play lacks; it's missing the theatrical ingenuity that infused Wilder's plays and was so stirringly evident in Center Stage's bill of short Wilder plays two seasons ago. Arena's production offers some indications that this spark is achievable. But right now, it needs to pay more attention to not only what Wilder was saying in the novel, but also to how he might have said it on stage.

On stage

What: Theophilus North

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; selected matinees 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through March 2

Tickets: $34-$52

Call: 202-488-3300

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