Nora Theatre revives American Classic

Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology

Conceived, adapted and arranged by Charles Aidman
Directed by Eric C. Engel
at the Nora Theatre
Harvard Union, Cambridge Through Feb 3, 1996
Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Nora Theatre has revived a prime piece of Americana, Charles Aidman's 1963 adaptation of the poems of Edgar Lee Masters from the Spoon River Anthology. If you have never heard these wonderful poems read aloud, or seen what good actors can do with them, hurry to the Nora. The Spoon River Anthology is a national treasure. The poet made a portrait of his home town community circa 1915 by writing an epitaph for each of the people buried "on the hill". The country's defining experiences -- the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the waves of pioneers and immigrants, the relentless industrialization that transformed the way people thought as well as the way they earned their livings-- all are reflected in the ordinary lives Masters turned into poetry, and in the connections he made visible between them. Masters was a lawyer and a playwright as well as a poet, and each of the epitaphs is a miniature drama, for courtroom or stage. Charles Aidman, struck by the theatrical potential of the material, took some seventy of Masters' hundreds of poems, arranged them in an order where they would illuminate one another, surrounded them with music that he thought would complement them, and got five of his talented friends to perform the resultant piece with him. It delighted audiences from Los Angeles to Broadway, and has been a staple of high school and community theatre ever since, engaging talents of all levels.

There's a very high level of talent on tap at the Nora. John P. Arnold, Richard Mawe, Deena Mazer, Paula Plum -- each performs upwards of a dozen characters, and some of them are done about as well as they could ever be done by anyone-- Mawe's Walter Simmons the inventor, Plum's suicidal Pauline Barrett, Mazer's Mrs. Kessler the washerwoman and blind but blissful Lois Spears, Arnold's Village Atheist. The company is especially good with the warring couples (divorce was a no-no in those Good Old Days) such as Doc Meyers, disgraced because he botched an abortion for a girl who had been raped, and his morally outraged spouse; or the Purkapiles: Roscoe, who ran away to Chicago claiming that he'd been kidnapped by pirates on Lake Michigan, and his equally brazen wife who claimed to love and believe him.

If some of the other citizens of Spoon River seem insufficiently differentiated, much of the fault for it belongs to Eric Engel, the director, and to the designers. Richard Russell has created a moss-hung, bone-strewn cemetery that makes a charming-- if rather Southern Gothic-- first impression; but the set combines the literal and symbolic in a heavy-handed way that interferes with the actors' ability to use the stage. Worse, Jana Howland has given each actor picturesquely ragged cerements to contend with, flowing garments of gray and white and brown that are tattered and tailored with an artifice that might be romantically suggestive in the cavernous reaches of the Schubert, but which in the intimate Nora is distracting, and gets in the way of the suspension of disbelief. How is an actress to convince us that she is sixteen characters who differ in age, temperament, ethnic background, education and class, when the same peculiar mobcaps, nightgowns, mitts and shawls appear over and over, insistently characterizing? Better to make the costuming and background as neutral as possible and let the imaginations of the actors and the audience fill in the details. The music, too, fails to harmonize. Will Hines is a strong, expressive musician, but his vocal style is at war with Regina Wambui Macharia's, and both styles clash with the tone of Masters' verse.

It may even be that it is time to retire Aidman's version of this classic. Aidman's arrangement of folk music has dated in a way that the Spoon River Anthology itself has not, and his choice of poems among those Masters wrote may be more suitable for Aidman's 1963 than for our 1996. Who today credits, or has even heard of, the legendary "Anne Rutledge", whose romantic influence on Abe Lincoln is evoked as the show's climax? But we need these poems, and we need to come together to hear them and reflect on our common heritage. They are as fresh now as they were when written, and their truth, which scandalized the townsfolk when they were first published, serves as a timely addition to our self-knowledge as a people.

When our politicians call on us to return to "virtue" and "family values" it is a prettified picture of small-town America that they are selling. A place like Spoon River, Illinois, before the Great Depression, before that enervating experiment in socialism, the New Deal. Masters shows us the reality -- cynicism, hypocrisy, greed, bigotry, frustration, and ignorance, as well as sturdy self-reliance and noble idealism. It's a sight for sore eyes.