There are few people who have influenced the culture of Asheville as much as Thomas Wolfe. His epic, semi-autobiographical books—particularly Look Homeward, Angel—examined the small-town culture of Asheville in obsessive detail.
For sharing his vision of this city with the world at large, the native son turned literary giant was both loved and hated in his hometown, provoking his famous observation, “You can’t go home again.” (Which was also the title of a posthumously published fourth novel.)
Since his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1938, Wolfe’s literary legacy has grown intertwined with his local roots in Asheville. And yet, the author’s dense, almost overgrown prose—the very reason for his fame—has prevented many in his hometown from understanding his story.
Return of an Angel, presented by the Occasional Theatre and Iris’ Girls, tells the story of the acclaimed author’s tumultuous life. The play investigates Wolfe’s relationship with his hometown: the ways in which Wolfe’s writing affected the people of Asheville and how the town’s reaction to his work also sparked conflicts within the author.
“The story itself is a memory play, similar to The Glass Menagerie, and breaks conventions of time and place,” explains Michael Lilly, the play’s director. “It moves back and forth through time, moving from the office of Maxwell Perkins [Wolfe’s equally notable editor], to Wolfe’s Old Kentucky Home in Asheville, and significant places from his childhood. It walks in and out of his memories, reflecting the haunted nature of Thomas Wolfe himself.”
Formed in Los Angeles in 1998, the Occasional Theatre was established by Michael Lilly and his wife, Brenda, to showcase deserving yet unproduced plays. After a number of successful performances on the West Coast, the company recently relocated to Asheville. Return of an Angel marks their first collaboration with playwright (and Asheville native) Sandra Mason.
Mason found inspiration for the script while working at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, and set her play on Wolfe’s short-lived homecomings before and after Look Homeward, Angel was published. Filled with less-than-flattering depictions of many local people, Wolfe’s novel ignited a firestorm of local controversy.
“[Look Homeward, Angel] drew upon the fabric of Wolfe’s life and painted a portrait of the town with a thin veil,” explains Chris Morton, operations manager of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. “And in a small town, Wolfe’s characters were easily recognized.”
Wolfe’s unromantic depiction of the town—which, much like today, relied heavily on tourism and real-estate development for economic growth—couldn’t have come at a worse time. As Morton notes, “1929 was the end of a real-estate boom in North Carolina, and Asheville was known as the ‘Paris of the South.’”
And yet, just as its native son was putting the town on the literary map, Asheville was already plunging into the Great Depression. It would see little investment or development until the late 1970s, which, ironically, is one reason why the Old Kentucky Home (the setting for much of Look Homeward, Angel and the site of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial) still stands.
Fittingly, the debut of Return of an Angel corresponds with the Thomas Wolfe Festival, to be held at the memorial. The festival begins on Wednesday, Oct. 3, marking what would have been Wolfe’s 107th birthday.
“This festival focuses on restoration, and we thought it would be an opportune time for this play, with the largest impact for the opening,” Morton says. “The Kentucky house [Wolfe’s childhood home] is the only thing that endures of a residential street in downtown Asheville.”
And the museum is working hard to preserve it. The 124-year-old house has seen its mountain village grow into a bustling city crammed with commercial buildings and condominiums. The Wolfe Festival and the opening of Return of an Angel enable the community to learn more about itself and the value of preserving its rich history.
“Wolfe contributed to the identity of Asheville—his work lends credibility to the story of our town,” Morton says.
Producing director (and Asheville native) Brenda Lilly adds: “This little town in the hills of North Carolina produced one of the most talented and acclaimed American writers: We need to remember this and celebrate it.”
who: Return of an Angel and the Thomas Wolfe Festival
what: Two events highlighting the life of Thomas Wolfe
where: Return of an Angel takes the stage at Asheville Community Theatre (35 E. Walnut St., www.ashevilletheatre.org or 253-4931); The Thomas Wolfe Festival takes place at a variety of locations, including the Thomas Wolfe Memorial (52 N. Market St., www.wolfememorial.com or 253-8304)
when: Return of an Angel will be performed at 2:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 6, and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7 ($20). The Thomas Wolfe Festival runs Wednesday, Oct. 3, through Sunday, Oct. 7 (admission varies by event)