Darkness at the Edge of Town 

Winesburg, Ohio

Some wag has pointed out that nostalgia isn't what it used to be, and with this new coproduction of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, audiences are in for the delicious realization that it never was. Ambitious, tender, dark, and razor-sharp, this selection of Anderson's interconnected stories is a haunting, frank testament to the lives of small-town Americans at the turn of the last century, beautifully realized by the fruitful, seamless pairing of San Francisco's Word for Word and the East Bay's Shotgun Players.

Ohio-born Anderson joined Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and Edgar Lee Masters in the literary movement known as "the revolt against the village," lambasting the literary conceit that paints the American small town as an idyllic, unspoiled paradise. Plagued by personal troubles -- he couldn't stay married or employed, although he tried both repeatedly -- Anderson eventually wrote more than twenty novels, as well as plays, essays, short stories, and pieces of investigative journalism; the book on which this play is based came out in 1919. He was keenly interested in human psychology and the stories people told, often basing characters on his Chicago neighbors and acquaintances: One editor recounted that Anderson often asked others, "You don't mind if I use that story you just told, do you?" Nobody ever minded, the editor recalled, and in the end the resulting works bore little resemblance to the true stories that sparked them. Which is not to say that they didn't have the ring of truth. Anderson's work was prized for its candor and truthfulness -- when it wasn't being criticized as "filthy" by readers unprepared to face certain realities: pregnancy out of wedlock, for example, or a man run out of town by a homophobic lynch mob.

Voluble and brash Clive Worsley kicks off the production's first story, "A Man of Ideas," with an antic portrait of Joe Weller -- the guy everyone knows, the guy who just won't stop nattering on about his oh-so-important ideas, the guy who is always right, even when he isn't. "Let's take decay," he enthuses at one point to the mild amusement (and impatience) of the townsfolk. "What is decay? Decay is always going on."

The women cluck at him, the men try to slide by without getting buttonholed, and everybody waits for some terrible thing to befall Joe because he can't keep his mouth shut. Slowly he begins to endear himself to his neighbors. But how can he win when he takes up with the demure, haunted Sarah King (Word for Word co-artistic director and cofounder JoAnne Winter), saddled as she is with a creepy father (Adrian Elfenbaum, whose compulsive elbow-scratching is well matched by his bone-chilling gurgle of a laugh) and a violent, unpredictable brother (Jeff Elam, fresh off Shotgun's Iphigenia at Aulis), who might, as the townsfolk whisper among themselves, have killed a man before moving to Winesburg? Worsley, Elfenbaum, and Elam do something with this story that totally lifts it off Anderson's pages. To say anything more would be to spoil the surprise.

"I hate books, and I hate anyone who likes books!" shouts Harriet Hardy (Winter), sealing the fate of sensitive, lovelorn Louise Bentley (Shotgun stalwart Beth Donohue), who has come to live with the Hardy family in "Surrender." Louise is totally blind to the trouble she's courting every time she eagerly raises her hand in class. Donohue is stunning as usual in this story of a young woman whose early academic achievements will arouse her classmates' scorn as easily as it does her teachers' approval -- and whose desperate yearning for affection and belonging will land her in an unwise marriage to a boy who misunderstands her entirely. Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley takes a turn on the other side of the lights as the sweet-but-clueless John Hardy (who, according to a story that isn't used in this production, will spend the rest of his life trying to please his volatile, withdrawn wife), and Winter and Nancy Shelby as Mary Hardy are suitably tart and vicious as the scheming sisters.

"Paper Pills" is the most tender of the four stories, the unfolding of a May-December romance between a young woman (Amaya Alonso Hallifax) and a doctor (David Cramer) whose pockets brim with the tiny, wadded-up notes that inspired the title. Told in flashback, the tale reveals that "only a few know the sweetness of the twisted apples," as the Tall Dark Girl, possessed of a little family money, leaves behind two questionable suitors (Dooley, who, as the virginity-obsessed jeweler's son, very subtly makes the skin crawl, and Worsley, whose character is concerned about anything but virtue) for the gentle, philosophical Dr. Reefy, who stands always on the brink of a momentous discovery. The chemistry is quiet and sweet, the end as delicate as a butterfly's wing. Hallifax and Cramer wisely play their characters with restraint, using silence to add color and dimension to their roles.

The last of the four stories, "Hands," was less cohesive than the others, a problem that lies in the text more than in Elfenbaum's shivering portrayal of a mysterious hermit living on the outskirts of town. Possessed of the "strange beautiful qualities in obscure men," Elfenbaum's Wing Biddlebaum has left behind something he loves very much in exchange for his safety, a safety he fears is threatened by his friendship with reporter George Willard (Dooley). There's a "golden vision" invoked by the chorus (Jeri Lynn Cohen, Shelby, and Winter) that unsatisfyingly dissolves almost as soon as it appears, and a heart-stopping near-lynching, which is more effective. There's little interaction between characters in "Hands," which also differentiates it from the first three stories and which might partly explain its loose, unfinished feeling -- it certainly is no reflection on the actors.

It's not surprising that these two groups pull off this selection of short stories so gracefully. As last year's The Water Engine showed, the Shotgunners navigate historical drama easily, and Word for Word are known for their innovative staging of literary works. What's striking is how well this project manages to blend the companies' strengths. Reader's Theater -- in which a text is often read in its entirety, every "he said" and "she said" firmly in place -- can be challenging, but under the sure hand of director Delia MacDougall, this group does it very well. Nonverbal sounds -- hissing, humming, a full spectrum of laughter, clicking, and clucking -- are patiently built up, creating a highly textured atmosphere. With Andrea Weber's movement design, economical staging, and rich light and sound design bringing to life the flavor of a small town -- its shops, cemetery, dusty fields, and sadness -- this is a production that augurs very well for future collaborations.

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