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Hooked on Phonics

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We Americans have always been suckers for storytellers who speak in strong regional dialects. In the 19th century we had Bret Harte and Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris and Finley Peter Dunne, and in the 20th we have Garrison Keillor and Bailey White and Will Rogers. Maybe we love these writers because they satisfy our yearning for authenticity in an increasingly bogus, homogenized, strip-mall world. Maybe we love them because, with their quaint ways of speaking, they convey a sense of place and of belonging denied most of us in this rootless society.

Still, I find myself becoming impatient when local color is used to distract the audience from flaws in the work. Which may be why so few of the local colorists of the last century are read today. Bret Harte is known mostly for a handful of short stories still read in high school English classes but probably only there. And as for Joel Chandler Harris, would we even know his name if it weren't for the Disney film version of his racist Uncle Remus stories, Song of the South?

I find I can no longer tolerate all the thick-accented commentators on NPR relating their tiresome little stories of everyday life in Georgia or Arkansas or Missoula, Montana, which wouldn't be half as interesting if they took place in Evanston or Oak Park or East Rogers Park. Similarly, Kevin Kling's The Ice-Fishing Play, despite its wit, annoys more than it entertains. Its central activity (ice fishing) is one of those cute, wacky regional sports no respectable, educated, upwardly mobile urbanite would be caught dead indulging in but loves to chuckle at. Naturally the play premiered at the Humana Festival, best known for launching the career of another shallow writer totally dependent on regional touches to make her work palatable, Beth Henley.

Set in northern Minnesota, the play--like the Coen brothers' film Fargo, Garrison Keillor's whole career, and Kling's own NPR commentaries--leans heavily for its charm and illusion of depth on quaint Minnesotan mannerisms: the northern European diffidence, the love of bad art (polkas, taxidermy, duck paintings), the remnants of Scandinavian vowel sounds in everyday speech. It begins, for example, with a long homage to small rural radio stations that wouldn't seem out of place in Greater Tuna (though the latter contemptible work is set in Texas, not Minnesota). In Kling's play we hear a pair of local broadcasters chattering about local goings-on--heavy emphasis on the yahs, ehs, and ooo-keys--before moving on to the big news of the day: which schools are closed on account of the weather. (This allows Kling to come up with all kinds of funny small-town names.)

On the page Kling can be quite artful, as when he chose to set this play, about a man facing his loneliness and mortality, in a tiny house in the middle of a frozen lake in a blizzard. His regional shtick wouldn't be so hard to take if director Doug Finlayson and his cast didn't lay the Minnesota accents on so thick, turning the characters into caricatures and pushing the play's comedy so hard they can't make the switch Kling intended in the second act.

Kling follows the time-honored pattern of regional writers by devoting the first half of the work to mocking the locals, displaying all their foibles for the amusement of our more sophisticated sensibilities. Then, in the second half, he reveals that his characters have a more human side, and we're invited to feel their pain. Mark Twain adopts this approach in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--though, as you might expect from a writer of his caliber, he's much more subtle about it than, say, Garrison Keillor, who has to get a little choked up and begin speaking very slowly and quietly before he can make the change from laughing at the citizens of Lake Wobegon to crying with them.

Kling falls somewhere between Keillor and Twain: he's too hip to indulge in Keillor's sentimentality but not nearly as deep an observer of humankind as Mr. Clemens. You wouldn't grasp any kinship with Twain, however, from the awkward way Finlayson's cast lurches from the play's surface comedy to its deeper message: the hero, Ron Huber, has lost everyone he loves and now wastes his days in an ice-fishing house, lost in his memories of the past. Finlayson and company have so much fun laughing at the locals, gleefully doing the Minnesota accent and re-creating the tacky aspects of stereotypical northern Minnesota culture--the fish on the wall, the cooler of nonimport beer, the funny plaid flannel outfits--that they lose touch with the play's undercurrent of sorrow.

Only Peter Rybolt, playing the protagonist, seems aware of that sorrow, though he isn't quite subtle enough an actor to play all the grays in the chronically depressed Huber's personality: his Huber feeling good about himself looks and acts a lot like Huber on the verge of suicide. Everyone else in the play just goes for the joke and moves on, especially Guy Massey and Pepper Stebbins in their utterly flat portrayal of a pair of goofy missionaries lost on the ice.

Local-color writing unfortunately encourages this kind of cartoonish behavior because it itself relies on stereotypes and half-truths tarted up to look like something more. And it takes actors better than the ones Finlayson has assembled in this Next Theatre production to pull the wool over our eyes.

Maintaining the quality of a show over a long run can be a problem, for young non-Equity theaters in particular. Even shows that start strong and garner great reviews can sag after a while. That's what happened, I think, to That's the Way It Is, By Golly, the Nomenil theater company's comedy about a woman who invites God home for a dinner date only to have the Almighty take a shine to her daugher (who's actually a boy). When I saw this messy but intriguing show last October its strengths--wild, energetic performances and flashes of brilliance in Allen Conkle and Courtney Evans's eccentric script--more than made up for its weaknesses: uneven performances, ragged production quality, a sometimes incoherent story line.

But three months into the run, the production's flaws are beginning to outweigh its appeal. The costumes look rattier, and the performances have become broader, shallower, and more self-indulgent. The pace has slowed from a crisp 75 minutes or so to a sluggish 90 minutes. What this show desperately needs is a director to whip it back into shape. Unfortunately, the two people best suited to the job--Evans and Conkle--are in the show overacting their buns off (Conkle is playing not only his roles but helping fill in for two actors who've left). As a result, this once "breathtaking, unpredictable, highly entertaining show," as I called it, has decayed into an only somewhat entertaining evening of comedy and noise.


The Ice-Fishing Play
Next Theatre Company
That's the Way It Is, By Golly
Nomenil

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Ice Fishing Play photo by Tracy Cruse.

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