Is a Battlefield
By Ralph Hammann
By Lanford Wilson, directed
by Anders Cato
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug.
Lanford Wilson is one of the great dramatic poets of America’s
romantic past and disaffected present. The crumbling, peeling
bygone grandeur of the belle époque and Victorian gingerbread
is the setting for two of his best works, The Hot l Baltimore
and Talley’s Folly. It is not that Wilson is a sentimentalist
woefully mourning the past era; he is more the rationalist
acknowledging the lovely idealism of the distant past and
seeking a way to live in the fragmented present and uncertain
Folly, which is informed by the lasting ravages that two
world wars wrought on innocence and aspirations, will always
have currency. Now, Wilson’s drama of loss is filtered through
the dust of Sept. 11 and that swept up by the current desert
storm abroad. Culture is continually degraded; artifacts,
links to the past, and records of human achievement are lost,
disintegrated in an instant.
Such weighty considerations are not immediately apparent in
what seems to be a simple romance with undertones of comedy.
But Wilson’s love story between Matt Friedman (Mark Nelson)
and Sally Talley (Kate Jennings Grant) is about much more
than two people’s attempts to connect and find meaning in
an old boathouse on a farm near Lebanon, Mo., on the night
of July 4, 1944. Their 97-minute courtship eventually erupts
in emotional fireworks. In the course of the evening one senses
that the world at war is never far from their bucolic setting.
Sally is a lovely near-spinster whose wit, intellect and sensitivity
seem at odds with her rural surroundings and kinfolk who bear
names like Buddy, Kenny, Lottie, Timmy and Olive. Although
Sally puts on a no-nonsense front, one senses more kinship
with her deceased uncle, an eccentric dreamer who built the
boathouse to resemble a gazebo and whose architectural frills
and frivolities grace parts of the town. A nurse’s aide in
a Springfield hospital where she tends to men wounded in the
war, Sally is a broken person with no seeming prospects save
the one who has invaded her stable if sterile world.
The interloper is Matt Friedman, a Jewish refuge whose Prussian
father and Ukrainian mother died when Matt was 11, during
the first world war in a Europe of strictly enforced borders.
Now Matt has ventured into a foreign territory that is beautiful
yet inhospitable—rather like Sally—to such a wandering Jew
as he. An accountant who dated Sally a year before, the rather
poetical Matt has determined that this is D-Day for a last
ditch effort to win Sally and, by extension, liberate her
Nelson nearly escapes the traps in playing Matt. The temptation
is to be liked by the audience and to play Matt’s charm, hidden
wounds and desperation. But the role also needs a degree of
ruthlessness and manipulation, a darkness that Nelson is unwilling
to fully explore. He manages the self-deprecating Jewish humor
well and also hints at an edge of cruelty in his imitations
of regional American accents (though I’d swear he is actually
imitating Peter Sellers’ pool-table improvisation in Stanley
As well, Nelson, who displays a wide range of dialects in
his jousting jests, doesn’t provide a voice that is sufficiently
ethnic to realistically establish Matt’s heritage and further
underscore his alienation in the American Midwest (which he
cuttingly refers to as the South, in an oblique reference
to Southern prejudice). With a voice that has shades of Bert
Lahr’s lovable woe and that seems to derive straight from
Manhattan, Nelson charms but never alarms.
To his credit, Nelson pitches his love with utter earnestness
and knowingly wheedles and cajoles as he masterfully delivers
Wilson’s intoxicating wordplay and sails confidently on the
crests and slopes of the poet-dramatist’s fascinating rhythms.
Her silences percolating with subtext, Grant is perfect as
Sally. We see in her the former cheerleader whose life spirit
has been driven within by the unyielding expectations of society.
Grant presents a wall of requisite impediments for Nelson
to surmount, but very cunningly leaves him sufficient footholds.
It is an enormously appealing performance, and when Sally
begins to let down her guard one feels danger, allure and
a protective impulse.
Anders Cato uses the acting area well and creates a mood that
is well-sustained, though I’d prefer a bit more romance in
the depiction of the natural setting and boathouse so that
it could offset the play’s underlying darkness. And I wish
he had inspired in Nelson more of the take-no-prisoners approach
that Cato fostered in last year’s revelatory hit, Miss
Julie. Matt describes the play as a waltz; it would be
appropriate to step on toes.
Carl Sprague’s striking set looks more bombed-out than decaying.
If this is an attempt to reference the wars, it should have
been resisted. Wilson’s text adeptly does this already. What
is needed is a dreamy atmosphere that depicts an American
world (along with its values) that is vanishing, not because
of war but because of progress.
Root, Root for the Home Team
by George Abbott, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry
Ross, directed by James Warwick
The Colonial Theatre at Wahconah Park, Pittsfield, Mass.,
That thousands of dollars were spent and that tremendous effort
was expended on staging a musical in a baseball park may be
significant, but the result is more of an event than an aesthetic
triumph. Big in terms of audience size, the vast grandstand
at Wahconah was filled with nearly 1,200 patrons. That only
about a third of the seats were decent in terms of sightlines
or obstructions (watching through the foul-ball screen is
a novelty I’d readily forego) is another matter, but not one
that seemed to faze the appreciative audience, who paid but
It was also big in terms of the effort involved in constructing
a lighting grid and roof over the large rented concert platform
that served as a stage for designer Carl Sprague’s set. The
setup was far from ideal, however, with the unexceptional
set pieces marooned on an island that felt very far from the
audience. The effect was that of watching an island ceremony
from the deck of a cruise ship.
It was a given that actors would have to be miked in the vast
field, but too often the technology drew attention to itself
with booming voices, echoes and a flattening effect that only
served to further distance the audience. One may just as well
have been at a lip-sync show, with actors miming the story
of old Joe Boyd, who sells his soul to the devil in order
to be reborn as young Joe Hardy and help the Washington Senators
win the 1956 pennant from the New York Yankees.
While one wouldn’t expect Darrell Pucciarello’s choreography
to displace memories of that by Susan Stroman in the last
Broadway revival of Damn Yankees, one could ask for
more than a routine effort that barely bridged the gap between
stage and stadium. What should be a showstopping number, “Shoeless
Joe From Hannibal, Mo.,” was especially disappointing. Lacking
energy and inventiveness, it faltered physically as well as
vocally. A forced Joan Barber got this labored effort off
to a bad start, but the entire ensemble failed to pick up
her ground ball.
The only element of the production that could inspire legitimate
boasts of size was the 18-musician orchestra, excellent under
Joel Revzon’s accomplished direction.
The show benefited enormously from two of its leads, Robert
Hunt as Joe Hardy and April Nixon as Lola, the devil’s seductive
assistant. Hunt convincingly managed to play multiple bases,
allowing us to sense the presence of his former self at odds
with his newfound fame and troubling (in light of the fact
that as Joe Boyd he has a wife) attraction to Lola. His resonant
voice surmounting the amplification traps, Hunt painted an
instantly likable portrait of innocence and zeal that must
finally succumb to pathos.
As the devilishly seductive Lola, Nixon defined stage presence
as she filled the far reaches of the stadium with her vibrant
sensuality. Sizzling through her early numbers, “A Little
Brains, A Little Talent” and “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets),”
she provided much more than brains and talent.
Former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette gamely sang and
acted with more heart than talent as coach Van Buren. The
stunt casting appealed to the audience, but there was something
gamey about the famous song “Heart,” which only got to first
base when it should have been an automatic home run. But then,
director James Warwick has admitted that he doesn’t know anything
Absurdly given top billing for a supporting role, Maureen
O’Flynn proved as bad an actress as she is fine an opera singer.
With a characterization that was ridiculously girlish where
it should have been elderly and maternal, O’Flynn skewed the
character of Joe Boyd’s wife, Meg, in a direction never intended
and awful to behold. As Applegate, the devil, Joseph Kolinski
turned a plum role into a prune. Awkward, absent of requisite
charm and silky elegance, he was more petty gangster than
prince of darkness, more sleaze than Mephistopheles.
While the production as a whole never rose above minor league,
Hunt, Nixon and the novelty of having hot dogs and beer at
halftime made parts of it enjoyable. Whatever its artistic
failings, Damn Yankees was a huge popular success,
and there was a palpable feeling of community as patrons from
all walks of life in the area appeared en masse to cheer the
newest home team.