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Soft-Pedaling Sherwood

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Winesburg, Ohio

About Face Theatre

at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

About Face Theatre's handsome, poised, lovingly acted musical adaptation of Winesburg, Ohio provides all the gentle warmth and comforting pathos that lovers of musical theater seem to require. Lovers of Sherwood Anderson's classic tales, on the other hand, may bristle as his dark, unsparing stories are once again portrayed largely as quaint. In the 85 years since the book was first published, Anderson's fictional Winesburg--based on his boyhood town of Clyde, Ohio--has acquired a patina of middle-American, turn-of-the-century, small-town wholesomeness. Our penchant for nostalgia, reinvigorated during the age of Reagan, too often turns any rural town where boys take their girls walking to steal a moonlit kiss behind the barn into Mayberry.

When the book appeared in 1919, however, its champions and detractors alike spoke passionately of its frankness, roughness, and unrelenting search for the "wart on the face of humanity." Part of its boldness lay in Anderson's experimental plotlessness and startlingly direct prose, as he boiled down the cadences of American vernacular to simple declarative sentences. But what made Anderson truly iconoclastic to his contemporaries were his unflinching depictions of emotional torment, most commonly fueled by debilitating sexual repression.

Anderson's gaze into "the infinities that lie beneath the commonplace materials of American life," as one 1919 review put it, still makes Winesburg, Ohio a captivating, disturbing read. In his 24 interrelated stories, Anderson focuses on isolated people trapped on the margins of a seeming American idyll. Wing Biddlebaum, a schoolteacher whose affectionate caressing of his male students has nearly gotten him lynched, sits "forever frightened" on his front porch, watching others laugh and joke as they pass by, convinced he's not "in any way part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years." Joe Welling--who like many adult men in the book lives with his uncommunicative mother--is silent or polite until he's seized by a kind of mental spasm and attacks passersby with a torrent of lunatic ravings. Elizabeth Willard--mother of reporter George Willard, the book's central figure--is a shell of a woman who lurks in the shadows of her husband's failing hotel, ruing her wasted life. She says about her son, "If I am dead and see him becoming a meaningless drab figure like myself, I will come back."

Depicting characters whose desires have been squelched and dreams deferred, Anderson renders with startling clarity an expressionist phantasmagoria of psychic deformity. The stories' vividness stems in part from his own experience. As a young man he worked first in advertising, then owned and operated the Anderson Manufacturing Company of Elyria, Ohio, known for a product called Roof-Fix that was guaranteed to keep shingles in pristine shape. But while the public Anderson was a respectable entrepreneur and family man, the private Anderson was tormented by the demands of bourgeois conformity and longed to write. Gradually his business fell into ruin, and in 1912, at the age of 36, he had a nervous breakdown. He walked out of his factory one day and didn't stop until he arrived in Cleveland four days later, not knowing who or where he was. Leaving his wife and children behind, he headed for Chicago, where a literary revolution was in full bloom.

It's no surprise that Anderson would look back at his former life not with nostalgia, as adapter Eric Rosen suggests in a program note, but with the fixed stare of someone who's survived a trauma. Ernest Boyd wrote in one of the earliest introductions to Winesburg, Ohio that Anderson ushered in "a literature of revolt against the great illusion of American civilization, the illusion of optimism, with all its childish evasion of harsh facts."

It's precisely this evasion that makes About Face's Winesburg, Ohio feel quaint. However, it begins promisingly. Sitting in the dark we hear a lone voice chanting a minor third. Gradually more voices join in, until the room resonates with a kind of choral requiem and a man is revealed in bed, perhaps dying or dead. Lights begin to shine through the wooden slats that line the back walls of the stage, and the inhabitants of Winesburg appear in silhouette. They are phantoms, "grotesques" to use Anderson's term. Soon two stand out: Tom and Elizabeth Willard, an unhappy middle-aged couple. "We were married and I thought, 'This is what you get,'" Tom sings, while Elizabeth sings about her lost youth and beauty as she watches a younger version of herself bicycling around the stage. Weaving in snippets of other characters' thoughts, composers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman create a haunting anthem revealing the town's inner life.

It's a stirring opening, intricate in its dark shadings. And since all the initial dialogue is sung, lyricism becomes the town's vernacular; songs don't seem to intrude as they so often do in musicals. But then the opening tapestry disappears and George Willard appears front and center, played by Ryan Gardner, whose aw-shucks manner instantly reduces him to a type: the male ingenue of 1960s musical comedy. It's a complex moment in the book when George, searching for something to do with his life, announces to his friend that he's "decided to fall in love" with Helen White--a moment both humorous and disturbing, revealing a man so alienated from himself that he imagines he can switch his feelings on like an electric light. But onstage it's merely cute.

In Jessica Thebus's production, these two poles of intricate darkness and facile cuteness pull the play in opposite directions. On the whole the cuteness pole exerts the greater force, not only turning George into a cardboard cutout--and Joe Welling into a spunky Professor Harold Hill, peddling quirky ideas rather than musical instruments--but generally softening Anderson's harsh edges. In the book, the Reverend Curtis Hartman is so tormented by lust while watching the town schoolteacher lying bare-shouldered in bed that he's ready to forsake every religious vow. But onstage his dark night of the soul is played for laughs and so can be dismissed with a chuckle. The musical even undermines the bite of one of Anderson's darkest figures, Elizabeth Willard, despite a powerful, heartfelt performance by Jane Blass. In the book, when she overhears her husband rebuking George--in essence trying to squelch the boy's artistic impulses--Elizabeth grabs a pair of scissors, intending to murder the man. Onstage, she just gets very upset.

The result is a pleasing, occasionally moving musical that lacks the vivid detail that would make it memorable. There's no denying the show's warmth and the carefully etched relationships among the many characters who come and go for nearly two and a half hours. And given the recent success of musicals like Floyd Collins and The Last Five Years, this tame approach may bring popular acclaim. But by wading in the shallows for most of the evening, the creators of this Winesburg fail to convey something both appealing and profound. Here the enormous pressures that drive Anderson's characters nearly mad--the pressures that twist daily life into art--are mostly workaday dilemmas that will be all but forgotten in a few weeks' time. Without convincing emotional extremes, Anderson's grotesques become amicable figurines, and the American musical stage is already littered with those.

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