It's quite a coup for Northwestern University's theater department to have secured a world premiere by Joyce Carol Oates: this student production is a curiosity that borders on an event. It's also a literary love letter from one American writer to another. In The Passion of Henry David Thoreau Oates pays complex homage to the naturalist of Walden Pond; quoting liberally from Thoreau and other transcendentalists, she combines biography with interior monologues, alternating pivotal scenes from Thoreau's short life with the legacy of his writing. Also depicted is a fascinating "supporting cast": Thoreau's generous brother John, protofeminist Margaret Fuller, utopian dreamer Bronson Alcott, the Brahmin aesthete James Russell Lowell, and fiery abolitionist John Brown. Most crucial as a mentor (and occasional tormentor) was Ralph Waldo Emerson, shocked at how Thoreau's civil disobedience turned his ideals into action; Emerson's wife, Lidian, became the sexually ambivalent Thoreau's second mother--and possibly first love. Northwestern professor Cindy Gold's vigorous staging assembles fragments of a life into a panoramic portrait, aided by designer Holly Eyman's woodland backdrop and rich period garb. Though Jamie Elyousef is too young to be convincing as the mature Thoreau, he does capture all the creative contradictions that make this passionate writer matter: flinty outspokenness and a rapturous love for Walden Pond (literally embodied here by a nude Elyousef in an onstage pool). Both script and staging could use smoother transitions, and some purists may not cotton to the chronological liberties Oates takes (she makes the Mexican War and John Brown's rebellion seem almost simultaneous). But the spirit of Thoreau, our once and future freedom fighter, soars throughout. Northwestern University Theatre and Interpretation Center, Ethel M. Barber Theatre, 1979 South Campus Dr., Evanston, 847-491-7282. Through May 30: Thursday-Saturday, 8 PM; Sunday, 2 PM. $12.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mary Hanlon.