LETTERS TO EDITOR
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Welcome to Our City
What are we going to do with those people?
-- Mrs. Rutledge
It's beginning to look as if we're going to have to try to understand them -- Mr. Rutledge
Eric Moreland & Lee Moore (Photo:Carol Rosegg )
"These people" are the descendants of the slaves Rutledge's father owned. Now, a descendant of slaves has become a physician and bought the slave-owning Rutledges' former homestead. That home sits just above an unsightly settlement of shacks occupied by the town of Altamont's poor blacks. That's why buying it back from its black owner allies Rutledge with the town's greedy business leaders who see it as the first step in their plan to evict the slum tenants and replace the black enclave with new homes for white citizens.
Welcome to our city indeed! It's a welcome that applies if you're white and can afford the escalating prices of houses in this boomtown where even a cemetary plot has resale value. If you teach evolution, and don't agree with the current gubernatorial motto "God and good weather are the two greatest campaign issues the Democratic Party has ever had" and see nothing wrong in women being treated likegrown children, you'll find Altamont something less than the great a little city touted by its go-getting citizens.
In time to coincide with the centennial of Thomas Wolfe's birth
Jonathan Bank, the Mint Theater's artistic director, has once again dusted the cobwebs off a virtually unknown play. Wolfe's Welcome to Our City may be an artifact and its brand of outspoken prejudice no longer politically correct, but Bank is as gung ho about the 1923 student work's timeliness as the Altamonters are about their city's future. He's right in that, even though we are more cautious in expressing bigotry, Wolfe's theme is more timely than many of us would like it to be. The racial issue that animates its plot spill over into politics and, like the Mint's Voysey Inheritance (see link), business. That said, I hasten to add that this is a far cry from being as well-made and satisfying as Voysey Inheritance. It's a work big on melodramatics and short of well developed characters.
Welcome to Our City had two performances at Harvard during Wolfe's tenure as a playwriting student. Like the novels on which his reputation as a great writer rests, it was verbose and uncontained. The Harvard production clocked in at four hours. The unwieldy length, the 44-actor cast and the controversial theme with its unpalatable language made commercial producers gun shy. Despite Wolfe's success as a novelist, it remained buried in the unvisited graveyard of forgotten plays.
Using an abridged and rewritten version as his starting point (the rewrite by Wolfe scholar Richard Kennedy, the cuts by editor Edward Aswell), director Bank has slimmed down both script and cast to one hundred and thirty minutes and twenty-one actors. The first act serves mostly as an introduction for the various personalities so things don't really start popping until the second act. While its title is less in-your-face than the original, Niggertown, and the black characters are played by African-American actors instead of white actors in black-face (in the Harvard production, Wolfe was one of the black-faced performers), Bank has not shied away from the "N" word as used by Altamont's black as well as white citizens (self-hate being a common by-product of racism).
The trimmed down production, while retaining the weaknesses of plot and characterizations, does focus on some nice bits of business that show the ripple effects of bigotry. The most telling is a second act scene between the most fully rounded character, Mr. Rutledge (Lee Moore, displaying a fine blend of aristocratic reserve, simmering emotion and, finally despair) and his child-like wife (Colleen Smith Wallnau who with a few deft strokes of good acting shows us the emptiness of her marriage and her desperate pursuit of culture).
The play anticipates Wolfe's novel, Look Homeward Angel, in its attack against the boomtown mentality of the twenties. His Asheville/Altamont citizens are what H. L. Mencken described as "boobs" -- snobbish, gullible and bereft of genuine spiritual or cultural values.
The result is a play filled with people who tend towards caricature rather than character. Unfortunately, most of the actors tend to play their stereotypical aspects of their roles to the hilt.
Vicki R. Davis has once again used the Mint's miniscule stage to good advantage and Ellie Van Horne's costumes add period authenticity. When the cast takes its bow, you can't help but be amazed by the size and energy of this and other Mint productions within the confines of its space and budget. It's too bad that Wolfe's play looks better than it plays. Thomas Wolfe fans (and his books are still worth reading!) will not want to miss this theatrical rarity. Those unfamiliar with his work, might do better reading Look Homeward Angel.
The Voysey Inheritance
|WELCOME TO OUR CITY
by Thomas Wolfe
Directed by Jonathan Bank
Cast: Sylver Gregory, John Lyndsay Hall, Haakon Jepsen, Michael LiDondici, Michael McLernon, Bergin Michaels, Gregory Mikell, Lee Moore, Eric R. Moreland, Robyne Parrish, Brocton Pierce, Patrick Riviere, Larry Swansen, Frank Swingler, Jonathan Tindle, Colleen Smith Wallnau, T.D. White, Don Clark Williams, David Winton
Set Design: Vicki R. Davis
Lighting Design: Randy Glickman
Costume Design: Elly Van Horne
Sound and Music: Ellen Mandel
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission
Mint Theatre Mint Theater, 311 W. 43rd St. (8th/9th Avs) 315-9434
9/08/2000-10/08/2000; opening 9/10/2000
Performance times: Tue - Thu at 7pm; Fri - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance