Review: `Theophilus North’

Opened July 21, 2007 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto

TheatreWorks’ `Theophilus North is Wilder and wonderful
three stars Northern delights

In turning Thornton Wilder’s final novel, Theophilus North, into a play, adaptor Matthew Burnett took a cue from Wilder’s best-known work, the play Our Town.

Because Wilder is constantly searching for the universal in the specific, simply having characters speak dialogue to one another hardly seems sufficient. In Our Town, we get the Stage Manger filling us in on the geography of the town and even the archaeology as he helps us find the town’s place in the universe.

In Theophilus North, which had its West Coast premiere Saturday under the auspices of TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, the setting is Newport, R.I., circa 1926, when the ’20s were really roaring in spite of Prohibition.

Burnett makes the town come alive — literally. We hear from trees, statues, stately homes, jalopies, road signs, ferry boats and even a lonely lighthouse. The effect, with its elements of silliness and scope, works beautifully to imbue the story with theatrical language while it enriches our experience of the setting.

TheatreWorks’ casting director Leslie Martinson steps into the director’s chair for this production and gives us an evening full of charm supplied by an inventive production and an agile, energetic cast.

When they’re not playing inanimate objects, the seven cast members play the denizens of Newport _ the wealthy ones who are served and the less wealthy who do the serving. Our hero is 30-year-old Theophilus North, played with irresistible appeal by Mark Anderson Phillips, who fancies himself an adventurer who needs to see the world.

Tired of “auxiliary verbs like `should’ and `ought,’ ” Theophilus quits his job at a private boys’ school and heads off to discover a more exciting fate. He only makes it 180 miles from his New Jersey home when his car breaks down in Newport, and there he stays for a spring and a summer doing odd jobs like teaching tennis (badly) at a country club and reading to the rich and infirm.

Theophilus tells us that since childhood, he has harbored nine ambitions: to be an anthropologist, archaeologist, detective, actor, magician, lover, saint, rascal and free man. During his summer in Newport, he has the opportunity to be a little of each and become a better man for it.

Unlike the Theophilus of Wilder’s novel (a sort of stand-in for the author himself), Phillips’ Theophilus is obnoxious in a likable way.

His great intelligence, ambition and ego are tempered by humor. For instance, he tells a young French student (a hilarious Craig Marker) that gigolo is “French for dancing partner with ambition.”

Theophilus means well, and he is both creative and manipulative as he strives to help those who seek his assistance. “Imaginative kindness can give a man a shock,” he says.
Among other accomplishments, he emboldens a frail old man (Jackson Davis) to reconnect with his passions, convinces a debutante (Kristin Stokes) not to elope with a gym teacher (Patrick Sieler) and helps a pregnant woman (Zehra Berkman) on bed rest save her marriage.

Of course Burnett had to streamline the novel in its transition to a 2 [1/2]-hour play, but while the character of Theophilus has been improved, some wonderful characters are completely left out. And some that remain, like the delicious former servant and now boarding house maven Mrs. Cranston (Julia Brothers), gets precious little stage time.

The dramatic arc of the play — the novel is much more episodic in nature — now involves Theophilus’ quest to become something more than a catalyst, the element that never changes while inspiring change in those around him.

The rallying cry here is Tennyson’s “I am part of all I have seen,” and it becomes Theophilus’ mission to eschew adventure for its own sake and attempt something more difficult: to belong to the world wherever he happens to be.

Part of that “belonging,” ironically, will come from observation as Theophilus, like Wilder, finds his true calling as a writer. As he says: “Memory and imagination can do marvelous things.”
The emotional pay-off in this lovely production — simple, graceful set by Annie Smart, lighting by Michael Palumbo and unflashy but handsome ’20s costumes by Taisia Nikonischenko — doesn’t have the passion it might. And the darkness and stark realism of Our Town is almost entirely absent, but Theophilus North radiates with the warmth and intelligence of a summer day spent in the best possible company.

For information about Theophilus North, visit www.theatreworks.org.

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