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Ensemble uses stories to bring town to life

By Maryann Maslan Daily Planet Correspondent
Saturday September 08, 2001

With tongues clicking and rumors circulating, words were picked up, repeated and echoed in whispers amongst the townspeople of Winesburg, Ohio, defining the conformity of small town life in rural America.  

The collaboration of Word for Word theater company and Shotgun Players has created one of those rare occasions when the sum of the parts is greater than the whole with their production of “Winesburg, Ohio: Tales of the Grotesques” at the Julia Morgan Theatre in Berkeley. 

When Sherwood Anderson published his novel of 24 short stories in 1919, small town life was no longer romanticized in the literature of the time. The hopes, dreams, desires and disillusionments of the individual were being expressed with a frank reality that disturbed readers.  

The ensemble selected four stories from Anderson’s novel weaving the life of a town into a patchwork quilt telling each person’s truth. Delia MacDougall, director of Word for Word, has delivered this production with compassion and humor. 

In “A Man of Ideas,” Joe Welling, played with uncompromising clarity by Clive Worsley, harangues the town with his eccentric ideas, keeping them on edge as to what he will come up with next. He is indulged, then applauded, when his unorthodox coaching methods lead the local baseball team to victory. But when he starts to court a shy woman from a questionable family new to town, raised eyebrows anticipate confrontation and disaster.  

A local newspaperman, George Willard (Patrick Dooley), appears in more than one of the stories recording the events of the town. He sometimes has an ear at a parlor door or sometimes becomes the object of a lonely soul he has befriended, drawing the audience into the various tales. 

In another story “Paper Pills,” there were moments of pure artistry when choreographed words and movement combined to create a chorus of twisted, bent apple trees that are a visual metaphor for the relationship between Dr. Reefy (David Cramer) and the ‘tall dark girl’ (Amaya Alonso Hallifax).  

Throughout the production the lighting by Jim Cave molded and supported the various moods as did the music and sound design by David Reyes. The details of Valera Coble’s period costumes and the flexible set by Alex Nichols added to the tightness of the show.  

Each of the four vignettes ended with a tableau that served to expose another level of the character’s motivation or revealed another corner of a tormented soul.  

Louise Bentley (Beth Donohue) is an emotionally confused young woman in “Surrender.” She is trapped and isolated longing for love and someone to listen to her dreams. The solution becomes worse than the fear of her unfulfilled dreams. 

The final story of the quartet is about a former teacher, powerfully played by Adrian Elfenbaum, who lives on the outskirts of town. “Hands” painfully demonstrates the effect of rumor and small town intolerance of anyone who is different.  

The 10-member ensemble has crafted an elegant slice of Anderson’s America.