Thornton Wilder, one of America's most idiosyncratic playwrights, never gave the public a full account of his life. But his final novel, Theophilus North, written in 1973, two years before his death, is semiautobiographical. In it, Wilder gave his life a Hollywood gloss, polishing the rougher edges and deleting issues he didn't want to talk about. Last year, Matthew Burnett adapted the novel into a play, and Main Street Theater is at the helm of its Houston premiere. Polite and pleasant, the work is a primer on all things Wilder.
In 1926, Theophilus North leaves his job at a New Jersey boys academy to set off for "an adventure." He wants to comb the earth and, in his words, "be a free man...a rascal." He gets as far as Newport, Rhode Island, the tony summer playground of influential New Yorkers, then his car breaks down. To replenish his wallet for his world quest, the resourceful and smarter-than-his-years Theophilus finds work -- teaching French and tennis, as well as other things -- among the town's wealthy residents.
Theophilus's interactions with the high and low of Newport society change everyone as they come to admire the refreshing honesty and forthrightness of our Pollyanna-esque hero. When his work is done, Theophilus realizes that his adventures are not somewhere else, but right where he is, wherever that may be. He heads back home to be a writer. That's the story: simple, charming, plain vanilla and not very plot- or conflict-driven. You keep expecting something big to happen, but it never does. Theophilus North is calm and understated -- quintessential Wilder.
Wilder's work is immensely entertaining. He's for the little guy; to him, the problems of ordinary people's everyday lives are as important as the dramas of kings and gods. It's not damning in the least to say that his vision of American life is like Norman Rockwell's. Both are drawn with exquisite technique, radiating hope and perseverance.
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Wilder's work is also sexless. For all his humanity and love of life, he kept his distance from the most essential element of his being: his homosexuality. He adamantly stayed in the closet when theater contemporaries like Tennessee Williams were at least tapping on that door, or peeking out from behind it. Ironically, one of his ill-fated affairs was with Samuel M. Stewart, the confidant of Gertrude Stein known to us today by his nom de plume, Phil Andros -- gay porn writer extraordinaire.
Each member of Main Street Theater's radiant ensemble cast has turned in a spirited performance. Trey Huguley has Theophilus's requisite spunk, determination and cheeky smarts, whether he's battling wits with an obsequious butler -- and getting the better of him, of course -- or looking out past the horizon and rhapsodizing about the stars. Tammy Carville, so moving as Birdie in MST's Little Foxes, makes a wise Mrs. Cranston, the downstairs doyenne who knows where all the Newport skeletons are buried. Shannon Emerick shines as both precocious Eloise and spoiled playgirl Diana, and Santry Rush has infectious fun in the roles of philandering husband George and the young Charles, who's suffering from "arrested development." JeanAnn Hutsell brings just the right tone and shading to her characters -- whether she's playing an infidelity-wary wife, the ramrod-stiff Sarah or an actual jalopy, choking and backfiring away. While Ted Giles does go over the top in his portrayal of tycoon Augustus Bell, he finds the right Dickensian tone for dotty Dr. Bosworth. And Robert de los Reyes ably fills in the secondary roles.
Although this slice of Wilder Americana is demure, director Steve Garfinkle keeps it at a flapper's pace, and the apt ensemble cast brings the adaptation to life. The simple but elegant setting by Travis Johnson, the unobtrusive lighting by Ethan Krupp and the stylish costumes by Rebecca Greene Udden fit this play like fine kid gloves.
Theophilus North's sharpest, most dramatic exchange occurs near the end of the play. Jealous heiress Sarah Bosworth (Hutsell) thinks Theophilus is meddling in the affairs of her eccentric father, Dr. Bosworth (Giles), because he encourages the reclusive doctor to venture outside the gates of his estate and make good on his dream of building a philosophers' colony on nearby property. Sarah wants none of this "discord," because it means losing some of her control over her father.
She spits contempt upon Theophilus like a vengeful Fury. "Who loves you, Mr. North?" she fires at him. "To whom do you offer love?" Sarah's rebuke, after the audience has been immersed in an atmosphere of soft nostalgia and wistful dramaturgy, is a slap in the face. It's like Edward Albee has come to visit. Theophilus, who's been curiously standoffish toward the opposite sex, has no answer for her. Wilder wouldn't have given her one, either. But his gentle, sedate play does address some of life's universal questions.
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