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Look Homeward, Angel.

Look Homeward, Angel

By Ketti Frings, based on the novel by Thomas Wolfe

Directed by Benard Cummings

Southern Methodist

University, Dallas, 3-7 December 2014.

The production of Ketti Frings's 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Look Homeward, Angel, a dramatic adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's 1929 novel, fulfilled what one has come to expect of drama from Southern Methodist University's theatre department: beautiful, innovative sets, color-blind casting, excellent acting, and fidelity to the dramatist's text. I saw the matinee performance on 6 December 2014, at the end of the play's limited run in the large Greer Garson Theatre at SMU's commodious Owen Arts Center. The theatre is a beautiful venue with a professional-level box office, a spacious lobby with padded benches, and in-the-wall display cases containing artifacts from Garson's professional life. Designed by architect Milton Powell and opened in 1992, the theatre was a $10 million gift of the actress, wife of E. E. "Buddy" Fogelson, attorney, oilman, rancher, and philanthropist.

With a classical thrust stage, a circular configuration, numerous entrances to the stage through several aisles, and seats for at least 375, the theatre was modeled on the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and the Chichester Festival Theatre in England (Anderson). The audience sits in several sections of steeply raked seats facing a large stage that easily accommodates sets of any size. For Look Homeward, Angel, Russell Parkman designed a flexible set depicting the front of Eliza Gant's multistory boardinghouse that changed into W.O.'s stonecutting shop, which was hidden behind Dixieland's front facade. The set also opened up to reveal a bed that slid forward and was then retracted for Ben's illness and death scenes. The bed was also used for Eugene's tryst with Laura James. The bedroom scenes represent the only indoor spaces that were depicted. Other action that would have incurred indoors took place in the downstage porch area. Characters entered the set and departed both from the wings and from aisles in the sections of audience seats. The set was visible from the audience at all times; no curtain was used in the thrust stage. The facade of the house seemed to be composed of brown wood, not the yellowish clapboard of the Asheville reality. The set described in the text of the play calls for a "flimsily constructed frame house ... painted a dirty yellow" (5), and the set did suggest age and decay.

Directed by Benard Cummings, SMU professor and New York actor, director, and playwright, the production accurately presented salient and memorable incidents from the last part of Wolfe's novel, capturing the spirit of the entire work in the process. The play showed the flirtations among the boarders; the Gant family's chaotic relationships; the raucous homecomings of the drunken patriarch, who is managed by his daughter Helen; and Eliza's real estate obsession, her lecture on "the value of a dollar" and charge of filial "Ingratitude" (Wolfe 432-33), and her insistence that lights be turned off to save money. It also portrayed Madam Elizabeth's visit to the Gant's shop; the Laura James episode; Ben's illness and death; and Eugene's departure from Altamont after speaking to the ghost of Ben. Inexplicably, Frings departs from Wolfe's text when Elizabeth wants to buy Gant's favorite Carrara angel for the grave of one of her prostitutes, her "best girl" (Wolfe, 265). In the novel, Gant reluctantly sells Elizabeth the statue, whereas, in the play, Eugene persuades her to buy a stone lamb instead, as his father supposedly wants the angel for his own grave. Other departures from the novel include Eugene's marriage proposal to Laura and his plan to elope with her, as well as Eliza's discovery of their intimate relationship and her consequent brazen confrontation of Laura, who leaves Eugene a note instead of writing him a letter from Richmond (the play necessarily had to truncate time and action to have Laura tell the disapproving Eliza that she is engaged to be married and thus will not pursue Eugene). In the confrontation scene, Frings renders Laura's character and motivations more fully than Wolfe's depiction in the novel. Before leaving Dixieland for the train, the young woman explains her actions to Eliza in a manner that gives depth to her character and makes her seem less mysterious:

   I should have told Gene long ago--but I didn't. A girl about to get
   married suddenly finds herself facing responsibilities. I never
   liked responsibilities. Gene knows how I am. I like music, I like
   to walk in the woods, I like--to dream. I know I'm older than Gene,
   but in many ways I'm younger. The thought of marriage frightened
   me. I told my fiance I needed time to think it over. I fell in love
   with Eugene. I found the kind of romance I'd never known before,
   but I've also found that it isn't the answer. Gene is a wonderful
   boy, Mrs. Gant. He must go to college. He must have room to expand
   and grow, to find himself. He mustn't be tied down at this point in
   his life. He needs the whole world to wander in--and I know now
   that I need a home, I need children--I need a husband.... For
   people like me there are rules, very good rules for marriage and
   for happiness--and I've broken enough of them. I telephoned Philip
   last night. He's arriving at the depot on that early train. We're
   going on to Charleston together, and we'll be married there. He
   loves me, and I will love him too after a while. (80-81)

In another difference, Eugene leaves at the end of the play to go to college, whereas, in the novel, he departs Altamont for grad uate school at Harvard. Also, Eliza sneakily arranges to sell W.O.'s shop to finance Eugene's college education and provide operating funds for Dixieland--an act that W.O. has anticipated. Knowing that she has the papers from the bank stuffed into her dress, he tells her, "Fish for them, woman" (60). When Eliza realizes that W.O. doesn't intend to let her have any of the money, she tears up the check

The SMU production conveyed the exuberance of the Gant family and Eliza's boarders in a well-paced reenactment of the relevant scenes. As is common now in revivals of classic plays, appropriate music, directed by Music Advisor Pamela E. Pagels, SMU Music Librarian, with original compositions by graduate student Derrick Home was used to set the mood of the play and the historical time. In act 1, Ben and Mrs. Pert dance to "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." Period hymns translated to gospel-tinged piano and ragtime tunes were used for scene transitions. Costuming, designed by another graduate student, Amanda MacArthur, did not spare costs (SMU is known for dressing actors handsomely). The novel depicts Eliza's wearing old, much-worn clothes that make Eugene ashamed of her, and the play specifies at the beginning of act 2 that she enters dressed in "prim shabbiness" (46), but in this production she wore gorgeous outfits, not in keeping with her miserliness or with Eugene's comment that she is wearing her "dealing and bargaining costume" (47).

The most startling departure in this production from both the novel and play texts resulted from SMU's practice of race-blind casting, probably a necessity in an academic theatre group whose mission is the training of all its students and the casting demands of other plays in the season. The Gant family, except for Helen and her husband, Hugh Barton, were played by black students. The other key players were white. Because the roles were so well played, one soon forgot that this casting was inimical to the novel where blatant racism, though authentic, is disquieting to the sensibilities of today. Audience members unfamiliar with the novel and its autobiographical underpinnings would have come away with false ideas about Wolfe's family and his attitudes, a good reason for being well read. One adult member of the audience asked me the identity of the novel's author, which was absent from the program, as though the play were an original production instead of an adaptation (he also asked several of the students present and found that they did not know who Thomas Wolfe was). Also, if one does not know the novel, the play might seem like a series of somewhat unconnected events. To one who knows the novel, it is a poignant reminder of some of the important events and themes in Wolfe's work. In the novel, Ben's death is heartbreaking; in the play production, without the narrative context, it verged on the melodramatic.

The acting was excellent, as the main players fully embraced and inhabited their roles. Eliza (Tiana Johnson) was properly domineering, outspoken, and self-assured. W O. Gant (Timothy Paul Brown) was larger than life in his loud drunken bluster and lamenting, an opponent equal to his wife. Laura James (Dagny Sanson) was lovely, refined, sensitive, and beautiful--departing from the novel, which depicts her as attractive but not beautiful. Helen (Caitlin Galloway) was complainingly long-suffering but successfully firm and efficient in her handling of her out-of-control father, ladling soup into his mouth and getting him into bed. Mrs. Fatty Pert (Jenna Richanne) was dignified, devoted to Ben, and quietly obliging when she was ordered out of the house. Madame Elizabeth (Andrea Flowers) was statuesque, elegantly dressed, refined, and able to recall for audience members who knew the novel her past relationship with W.O. Dr. Maguire (Taylor Harris) was the comforting family physician, the outsider, called in but unable to save Ben. Kamen Casey as Ben looked too robust to play the sickly character, and he did not convey the irony and bitterness of Eugene's older brother. Eugene (Robert George) was another character difficult to portray without narrative context because as the family observer and recorder, he sees many events in the novel through a satiric lens. The Laura James episode and the final subjective scene in which Eugene encounters the ghost of Ben in the moonlight would be difficult to understand properly by audience members who did not know the novel. Finally, irony abounds in the fact that this is a play based on the first novel of Wolfe, who aspired in vain to be a successful playwright. One wonders what he would think of the play. I think he would have approved of the general faithfulness with which Frings handled his material and the attention lavished on it by Southern Methodist University.

Works Cited

Anderson, Porter. "The Life and Theater of Greer Garson." D Magazine Aug. 1992. Web. 25 Dec. 2014.

Frings, Ketti. Look Homeward, Angel: A Comedy-Drama in Three Acts. New York: French, 1958. Print. Samuel French Acting Ed.

Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. New York: Scribner's, 1929. Print.
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Author:Casper, Vivian
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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