Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Thousand Words by Madison Playwright Gwendolyn Rice

Saw an awesome play this weekend:  A Thousand Words, scripted by Madison playwright Gwendolyn Rice and produced by Madison’s own Forward Theater Company.  

The tease was a stash of photos taken in Havana, Cuba in 1933 by Depression era photographer Walker Evans. They were discovered among boxes and crates of Hemingway’s possessions unearthed in a storage room in Key West.  What I thought I was going to get was a historical look at the relationship between Hemingway and the photog.  But what was delivered was the fictional story of the emotional fallout when Evans is teemed with a hesitant young woman to document Kansas sharecroppers in the 1930s.  I’m glad that’s what A Thousand Words turned out to be. 

After a clunky opening in which one of the lead characters reads a newspaper article (perhaps unnecessarily) to set up the backstory and tell us who the main character is, I quickly found myself mesmerized by the way the story bounced effortlessly between the present and the past.  The story begins with two art buyers/promoters from the Metropolitan Museum of Art lusting after the newly discovered Evans photos. But one of the procurers, Sally Quinn, is already booked to go to Kansas to arrange delivery of a collection of rural quilts for a planned exhibition.  We are then taken back to 1937 when Evans is teamed with pretty, earnest Shirley Hughes to travel to—guess where—Kansas to photograph sharecroppers suffering during the Depression.  Hughes is dismayed with their particular assignment. She lives in New York and has dreams of seeing Paris.  And she’s not too thrilled with Evans himself. 

The story unfolds through a series of small moments like a set of live action prints. Rice infuses her dialogue with a nice blend of humor and drama. The twists and turns are more than plot points; they become emotional moments that reveal things about the characters that some of them do not even know about themselves. That, in my mind, makes for a very satisfying story. 

The play was expertly directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray. The set, designed by Nate Stuber, was simple but evocative of the theme and allowed the audience to focus on character. The six actors – T. Stacy Hicks, Sarah Day, Josh Aaron McCabe, Molly Rhode, Georgina McKee, and Libby Amato – all hit just the right notes, once even eliciting applause mid-scene. 

This was the last weekend of the play’s world premiere production. When the Madison run is finished, the play will be presented at the Milwaukee Chamber Theater.  I’m guessing A Thousand Words won’t stop there.  This is a play that speaks to the human experience.  It entertains while offering just enough of a historical hook that it made me want to know more about Walker Evans.  Kudos to Gwendolyn Rice! 

[Photo by Edwin Locke, for the Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information / Office of Emergency Management / Resettlement Administration]

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