Sunday, September 14, 2008

ONSTAGE AGAIN: "The Happy Journey"

A colleague in the Drama Department was about produce Thornton Wilder's "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden," best known as simply "The Happy Journey." He asked me to play the central role, Ma Kirby. Well, as you might guess, if I caved in to a roommate's request to be in her Mask Club play (see a previous Sounding), I certainly wouldn't play hard-to-get for a faculty member with a long string of successes, his own Equity card, and influence with the university promotion committee. So what if there would be no live audience?

Charles was directing and producing a film version of Wilder's play, which would then be used in drama classes and possibly sold to public television. Or to MGM--who knew? (Well, I did, for one. But I kept a straight face.)

So in a bare film studio on campus, six of us stood around, looked at each other, looked at the four straight chairs (the "car" that would take us on the happy journey), and at least one of us wondered just how you go about spinning gold out of straw.

My character was Ma Kirby. No costume other than one of my blah dresses, plus a little cloche hat Charles had pried out of the wardrobe mistress. Pa Kirby was a pleasantly portly graduate student with a battered brown fedora. Our "children" were two skinny kids that belonged to the faculty genius. (One of their brothers would later be a College Bowl star, a sister became a widely published author, another sister joined the faculty as a medievalist.) Ma and Pa had an older daughter,
a "married daughter" and always, in the script, referred to that way. It took me a while to figure out that Wilder was stressing the respectability of the daughter. In the Twenties, an unmarried daughter who lived away from home would have had neighborly tongues wagging.

Married Daughter (Beulah) comes onstage only for the last few minutes of the play. (As it turned out, that was just as well. The co-ed playing Beulah seemed to come from a very different part of the country than the rest of the cast, if not from an unknown planet.) Essentially the happy journey takes Ma and Pa and the two kids, Arthur, 10, and Caroline, 12, on an 80-mile trip during an era when such travel by car was a big deal to most folks. Oddly enough, this trip becomes a big deal to the reader. "Oddly" because almost nothing happens. The Kirbys stop for gas, they stop to let a funeral pass by; they have a rough couple of minutes when Arthur makes what Ma considers a sassy remark; they read billboards. That's about it.

And yet--everything happens. Birth (Beulah has just had a baby) and death
(not only the central figure of the funeral they pass, but the daughter's baby, who lived only a few hours). Education ("Pa, don't go past the school! Mr. Bridenbach will see us!"), work ("Ma, can I get a paper route?"), propriety ("Put your cap on, Arthur; I don't go on no journey with no tramp!" "Take off you hat, Arthur; look at your father," as the funeral passes). The Journey includes it all: food, sleep, neighbors, friendship, patriotism, religion, animals, family, love. None of it sentimentalized, none of it written in italics or bold print, most of it in casual observations taken up and dropped the way you'd spend a few minutes looking at a stone or a shell along the Jersey shore.

One character I have left till now. Wilder uses a Stage Manager, as he does in Our Town and other plays, giving this actor a variety of small roles--next door neighbor, one of Arthur's playmates, the service attendant in the gas station, with whom Ma has an extended, homey chat that embarrasses her children. Director Charles was especially insightful in his choice of cast member here. The Stage Manager was played by Sterling VanWagenen, a slim, blond young man who wore his role lightly yet with total engagement. This fellow could act. And do a bit more, as it turned out. He later produced, among many other works, the much-honored 1985 film, A Trip to Bountiful. Geraldine Page won the Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe award for that role. Van Wagenen was also a co-founder of something they named the Sundance Film Festival, currently America's largest festival honoring independent films. Later, in conjunction with another blond actor, he founded the Sundance Institute, now the major supporter of independent playwrights, screenwriters and filmmakers.

Spinning gold out of straw.

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