Who is the poet who goes by the name Wallace Stevens? That is the question writer David Todd poses in his elegant and delightful potpourri of a play, at once both intellectual and heartfelt, a tug of war between the mind and the heart that will eventually define a hero who must come to terms with his split devotion between duty and delight, whimsy and family, fantasy and reality.
Stevens is a corporate tax lawyer by day, a father of a beautiful teenage daughter, and husband to a wife who sees past the mystery and intrigue of a poet and knows the humdrum reality of holding a family together all too well. The play opens with the writer engaged in an argument with his daughter who fails to see what makes him so important, instead trying to exert her own independence from an authority that Stevens himself once rebelled against in the form of his own father. In what could have been a standard 50s set family drama, however, is instead contrasted with scenes of utter beauty thru elegant choreographed dance sequences that show a man trying to capture the innocence of nature, here represented thru projected images of the various seasons of Connecticut, along with theatrical displays of carefree humor in the form of commedia dell’arte that reveals a man who simply sought unbounded pleasure that only the ancient genre offered to him.
So much of what works in the play must simply be felt, much like the mystery that only a poem can reveal, and that is where Todd and play director Anjanette Hall have found the soul of Stevens incapable of being expressed merely thru dialog but rather thru the combination of senses, whether it be visual or auditory. We’re treated not only dance sequences and visual projections, but the lingering presence of a haunting and eccentric score by Ben Chasny, an indie guitarist who combines elegant finger picked mantras with a synthesizer that often edges on the avant-garde to just plain bizarre. His score manages to provide a cinematic feel, revealing the subtle and often imaginative mind that Stevens was only ever able to display when give free reign to write it down on paper.
When not lost in the sensations of sound and image, however, there is much humor to be found in a dazzling cast of supporting actors who take the arduous task of portraying other heavy hitters of the literary and poetical world that Stevens came from. Most notable is a scene stealing Robert Branch who portrays the poetical giant Williams Carlos Williams as a man fighting for respect and recognition while having to carry on his own day life as a doctor. Williams isn’t the only writer whose name we recognize tho, with other notable writers such as Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway dropping in to nudge Steven’s along in their own battles of integrity.
And just as Stevens seems to be lost in his own battle for respectability, we find his wife Elsie battling just to lead a normal life away from the vulgarities and hedonism that young writers are wont to display. As a young man, Stevens gets caught up in dreams of Paris, where he becomes involved in a writer’s circle that sets off the anger of a father persistent that the ambitious young man give up his pursuit of such an effeminate career as a poet and instead focus on his professional life.
And while Stevens does find success as a lawyer, it is only thru his own poems that we find a man unrestricted by the boring daily experience of living the American dream, free at last only when lost with a pad and pen in hand, to truly display a mind both curious and innocent in what it finds to be both beautiful and haunting, the feeling of pure delight at seeing two young women dance across a stage, tossing fake leaves into the air, aiming to please no one but the man who finds himself entranced by their grace. By the end of the play, we’re left less with a true account of who Wallace Stevens is but rather a true capture of the soul that the man possessed, a delightful experience that both captures and mystifies the very essence of the indescribable nature that is life that Wallace was so very well able to capture in his own writing.
Information and tickets can be found here: http://www.playwrightslocal.org/things-as-they-are/