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A CurtainUp DC Review
Deep in a Massachusetts swamp, the Devil lies in wait for the greedy and slothful. Not by his hand, but by their own vices shall his victims be undone. That's the apparent moral of Tom Walker , John Strand's amusing fable of sin and vengeance. But it's a moral delivered with a wink.
Don't be fooled by the subject matter: there's a contemporary and cynical sensibility driving this bedtime story. If that's not apparent at the start, it is by the final moment.
Strand borrows from Washington Irving to spin his yarn about a Colonial-era "underachiever" who bargains away his soul, then fights to get it back. He means it as an opportunity to examine race relations -- he Devil in this tale is a former slave -- but the examination becomes incidental in the telling; in the end it's not race, but greed that dominates the evening. No matter. It's subject enough.
The play opens with Cora (Margaret Laurena Kemp), the Devil's daughter, presenting the story of a talentless fiddler with big dreams. Tom Walker (John Glover) trades his wife's heirloom teapot for the promise of a pig's litter that never arrives, then numbs himself at the tavern. Desperate for cash, he turns to the lowliest occupation in the Colony -- herding indentured servants to their masters. But at least he has friends. His drinking buddy Bob Jenkin (played with brilliant incoherence by J. Fred Shiffman) is always available to listen, even if he's too soused to lend much help.
Glover is utter delight as Tom, creating an endearing character of a figure who would otherwise be despicable. Strand allows the brow-beating by Tom's wife (Kate Buddeke) to go on about a scene longer than it should before he dispatches Tom to the swamp and his encounter with Old Scratch (Wendell Wright). From there, however, things pick up nicely.
And what a Devil! A huge, dark, looming presence, Wright embodies the logician/demon who overcomes Tom's resistance like a slick salesman in a used car lot. With an argument for everything, he drives Tom to desperate measures. In the end, though, like many a mortal, the Devil resorts to brute force to seal the fateful bargain. Why Tom's tarnished soul would be attractive to anyone is another question, but that's how these stories go. Of course the Devil wants it, and, as expected, the Devil gets his due.
Flash forward two years, and Tom is the most despised man in town -- wealthy, heartless moneylender who longs for the life of honest poverty he once despised. His fate seems sure until he meets a desperate widow (Martha Hackett) and discovers his opportunity for -- well, if not redemption exactly, then a way out. To say much more about the story would spoil the fun
Tom Walker marks the fourth collaboration between Strand and director Kyle Donnelly, who scored big a few seasons back with the award-winning Lovers and Executioners at Arena (review linked below).
With audience on all sides, Arena's mainstage must be a challenge to some directors, but Donnelly seems to thrive in it. In her hands the script's potential liability -- its short, rapidly shifting scenes -- becomes an asset. The story unfolds fluidly under Donnelly's adept use of Thomas Lynch's spare set. Detail suggests the whole: a chamber pot and a tattered blanket speak to Tom's poverty; a morass of dangling ropes are the swamp in which he meets his fate.
In this minimalist design scheme, the rich costuming of Lindsay Davis becomes essential to setting the scene, as is Nancy Shertler' s lighting and Donald Dinicola's sound plot. Strand gives the designers plenty to play with here -- Shertler's big moment is a climactic conflagration -- and they make much of the opportunity.
Tom Walker is one of those rare experiences in theatre, an almost perfect marriage of language and craft, in which performance, text, direction, and design work together to create an experience that is much more than the sum of its separate parts. In short, a must-see.
CutainUp's review of Lovers and Executioners