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We seldom review "out-of-town" productions in these pages, but there's an eloquent, gentle new show that just opened on the Near West Side that's been launched by lots of our fellow community members, and it's definitely worth checking out.
Local Wonders: A Play with Songs, presented by Full Sky Productions, employs homespun humor and wisdom and lots of fine poetry in a strong celebration of life's joys through original folk music. It's like "Walden" meets "Lake Wobegon" and begets a musical.
If you're looking for a fun little holiday field trip outside our villages to enjoy a unique theatrical experience, head down to Chicago Dramatists, a playhouse located at 1105 W. Chicago Ave. (at Milwaukee). There's a 24-hour Blue Line subway stop right on that very corner, just a few steps from the theater door. It couldn't be more convenient.
This premiere was adapted for the stage by collaborators Virgina Smith, who is also the director, and well-known Oak Park actor, playwright, and musician Paul Amandes. These two were inspired to develop the 2004 book Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps by poet Ted Kooser as a musical drama.
Though the playbill contains no bio and little background info on Ted Kooser, I've learned he is a former U.S. poet laureate and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in poetry who lives in joyous obscurity in semi-rural Nebraska. Born in 1939, Kooser was an insurance executive for years before turning to poetry. His poems convey the feeling and spirit of life on the wide-open Great Plains.
The play captures in lush detail his community in the rolling hills of southwest Nebraska, an area settled by Czech and Bohemian immigrants in the 19th century. Kooser's is one of those communities so small that everyone knows the postmistress by name. We meet the middle-aged world-class poet just as he's suddenly challenged by twin scourges: cancer and writer's block. He addresses us directly, livening and leavening his story with folk music.
Multitalented Amandes wrote the score and some of the lyrics; a few of the other songs are Kooser's poems directly set to Amandes' tunes. The actor/singer, strong and believable in the role, accompanies himself on the guitar.
Director Smith keeps the anecdotal style of the drama flowing smoothly. Though there is only one set suggesting the interior of the Kooser home, surrounded by tall weeds and prairie grass, the actors inventively expand the location. When Ted climbs up into his grown son's former treehouse, he is actually crawling onto the kitchen table.
Anne Hills, well-known in the folk music field, is terrific as wife Kathleen, in addition to portraying assorted incidental roles such as a dental hygienist, hardware store clerk, and therapist. Hills plays banjo, guitar, and harmonica.
The focus of the play is virtually an extended monologue or soliloquy by Ted Kooser. Confronted with cancer, he embarks on a sentimental journey into his past. We visit episodes from his earlier life via musical flashbacks. Much of this sweet play evolves in flashback vignettes.
The poet endured desperately lonely years as a teenager. But there's always humor mingled with the bittersweet reflection. As a young man, the protagonist carried hefty books under his arms to make his biceps look larger to attract women. His mother was an excessively frugal woman who surprisingly banked a small fortune, living simply. The poet also had a heavy-set Uncle Tubby who died in his recliner shortly after his retirement.
Soon Ted begins a long stint of radiation treatment. After each treatment, he places a pebble on the window frame as a marker. Though his wife shares the journey with him, the focus is on Ted.
A drawback to this type of sensitive, introspective writing is that since it's derived from poetic roots, there is a lack of strong dramatic "stage" conflict. Everything feels low-key, reflective and understated. There are few tight, heightened moments, highly energized or earth-shattering. It's not that type of show, of course. Ted's bout with cancer is told matter-of-factly — his reactions are almost muted. Yes, the poet feels betrayed and short-changed by his illness, but there's not a lot of intensity.
This gentle work has the feeling of nostalgic anthology, a sweet backward glance at a painful time when the poet took daily walks (often with his old dog) to reflect on his early life.
Each episode is a sweet, homespun interlude, but they distract us from the dramatic focus — his cancer. For a time his son by another marriage moves onto their property and lives in a converted corn crib, so Ted has a chance to be a full-time father at this precarious point in midlife.
The episodic musical drama includes some warm seasonal interludes. A Christmas flashback evokes an early teenage job Ted had making hundreds of ribbon bows for gifts purchased in his father's store.
As Kooser enters remission, he achieves a renewed sense of wonder and clarity. He finds fulfillment, experiencing delight in ordinary everyday observation in his own backyard.
"You need never leave home," Ted comments, as he reflects on the comforts and sanctity of country pleasures, which he now sees more clearly. It's like Dorothy Gale in the closing moments of The Wizard of Oz: "There's no place like home."
Pianist James Robinson Parran, seated stage right, also joins in the singing at times.
Local Wonders is produced by Mary Pat Sieck (artistic and managing director of Open Door Repertory in Oak Park), Amandes is the music director, and Holly Windingstad designed the set.
This play was workshopped in 2005, a year after Kooser's book was published. It was produced in 2006 by the Nebraska Repertory Theatre. Witnessing the local premiere of a new work is always thrilling, but this is doubly so since so many local talents and supporters are involved in the production.
Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher/school librarian who, when he isn't reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.