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

Burnett helps find Wilder’s true `North’

In his unfinished, unpublished preface to Theophilus North, his final novel, Thornton Wilder wondered what we humans do with our “despair, rage and frustration.” He considered North, which was published in 1973, to be precisely about our battle against the worst things that life throws at us.

That battle courses through Wilder’s work, whether it’s one of his plays (Our Town) or one of his novels (The Bridge of San Luis Rey).

Early in his career, Wilder summed up his work to then, and his assessment proved true for most of what was to follow: “It seems to me that my books are about: What’s the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose it.”

In Theophilus North, published when Wilder was 76, two years before his death, Wilder offered a somewhat autobiographical title character who was both aimless and ambitious, anxious to find his place in the world and to be of service.

Theophilus (who bears the same name as Wilder’s twin, who died shortly after birth), is stuck in Newport, R.I., and ends up working odd jobs for the town’s wealthy inhabitants and the less wealthy people who serve them.

He’s not unlike Dolly Levi in Wilder’s The Matchmaker, who ends up meddling and changing people’s lives.

The story of Theophilus grabbed hold of Matthew Burnett, also aimless and ambitious, almost by chance and ended up changing the young actor’s life. His stage version of the novel has its West Coast premiere Saturday in a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

Having reached a sort of post-college sand bar that had waylaid his own voyage through life, a 23-year-old Burnett ended up back at his old high school in Calabasas chatting with the teacher who had directed him in a production of Our Town. The teacher recommended the young man read Theophilus North.

“I started to read the book and was dumbfounded,” Burnett says from his New York City home. “It became apparent to me within 30 pages that this novel would be a great play. It just had to be a play. At that point I was thinking about it as an actor. I was Theophilus. I figured I’d write the play for myself.”

Years passed, and by the time Burnett was at the point where he could actually begin to seriously turn the novel into a play, he was too old to play the 30-year-old North.

“It’s just as well,” he says. “If I was going to write this, I needed to be able to separate myself and see what’s working, what isn’t.”

Before Burnett began to write in earnest, he contacted the Wilder estate, which was then run by Wilder’s sister, Isobel. The response from the estate was pretty much, “No thank you very much.”

A heartbroken Burnett couldn’t be dissuaded. He decided if he couldn’t write the play as a viable project, he’d write it for the love of doing it.

For several years, in between acting gigs, Burnett would sit on the roof of his Brooklyn building and turn Theophilus North from a nearly 400-page novel into a two-hour play.

When he actually had a working script and had actor friends read it in a sort of living room workshop scenario, he decided to make a serious move: He hired a literary agent.

“I knew I had no credibility as a writer, but through the agent we contacted the Wilder estate again, which was by this time run by Thornton’s nephew, Tappan Wilder,” Burnett says.

One night Burnett’s phone rang, and it was Tappan Wilder. Burnett recalls Wilder saying: “You know, we don’t ever give rights to these things, but I’m intrigued by the work you’ve done and who you are and why you’ve done this.”

Burnett and Wilder met in New York at the Yale Club, and at the end of the night a deal was struck.

“Tappan said to me: `I like you and think you’ve done a good job. I say yes.’ He shook my hand. I don’t know what I did for the next three hours or how I got home or any of it,” Burnett says.

Theophilus North, the play, had its world premiere in 2003 as a co-production between the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and Geva Theater Center in Rochester, N.Y., and it was produced again last year off-Broadway.

The novel is episodic, as Theophilus makes his way through Newport, helping here, teaching there and affecting lives everywhere. Burnett’s job as a dramatist was to give Theophilus a more dramatic arc and emphasize that although he’s a bright man with a wealth of factual knowledge, he still has a lot to learn about the world.

“There’s a section in the novel in which Wilder says Theophilus wanted to be surrounded by a constellation, but that this desire had nothing to do with romantic love or love of family.

“That made me think, `What kind of love are we discussing exactly?”’ Burnett recalls wondering. “It’s such a pure, beautiful thing that Wilder ended up turning to: a love of friends, a love of your community, which is a love that is not swayed by broader, more basic impulses. But that’s one of the things Theophilus in my play has to discover. That’s his journey. He’s somebody that has a perspective on the world at the beginning that is kind of unraveled by the end through the process of him helping other people.”

For the last few years Burnett has been, in essence, living in Wilder’s world, which, he says, is not a bad place to be.

“I think Wilder, more than any other American writer, was better able to articulate in a direct, tangible fashion, the ability to see the universal in the particular,” Burnett says. “We can’t live within the constant desire to have consciousness of the universal, but we can find the universal in the specific.”

When he died, Wilder was reportedly at work on a sequel to Theophilus North, and its tentative title was Theophilus North, Zen Detective.

Now there’s an intriguing idea. Perhaps the time has come for Burnett to pen a Thornton Wilder-inspired TV series.

Theophilus North continues through Aug. 12 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $21 to $57. Call (650) 903-6000 or visit