No doubt about it: The story of Thomas Wolfe, his famous first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, and the scandalized reaction to both by family, friends, and acquaintances in Wolfe’s natal Asheville, retains intense interest, especially for those who live here. Debut novels tend to be autobiographical, but Wolfe apparently went whole hog, failing to disguise those he portrayed in the slightest. When the book was published, just before the great stock market crash of 1929 devastated Asheville in a different way, it was treated locally as a roman à clef to which everyone held the key: Ashevillians sought out themselves in those pages, as well as others they might recognize. Few seemed happy with Wolfe’s depictions of them, and what he revealed about his mother, father and siblings hurt most of them deeply, and damaged their reputations. Wolfe channeled these reactions into further fiction, published posthumously as You Can’t Go Home Again.
Playwright Sandra Mason spent a decade researching, writing and acquiring the rights to use Wolfe’s work in her celebratory play, Return of An Angel. This is its third annual presentation in Asheville by The Occasional Theatre, this time in partnership with Asheville Community Theatre. The production is coordinated with Wolfe’s birthday, and there’s a certain piquancy to watching much of the Wolfe clan portrayed right next door to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, featuring the restored Old Kentucky Home that his mother ran as a boarding house. One also feels the presence of living history as such local landmarks as Pack Square are named.
Mason’s work is loving, literate and scrupulous, but to call it a play may overstate the case. Her method has more in common with lectures than with drama. (In fact, one highlight of the occasion is a recreation of a lecture Wolfe actually gave at Purdue University.) Direct address to the audience is the primary tactic for disseminating information; even in scenes during which characters actually interact, more often than not, they stop midstream to face front and explain what’s going on. It also doesn’t much help, in the first act, especially, that we’re treated to individual characters’ sense of betrayal in repetitive succession.
Director Michael Lilly has chosen a decorous approach that honors historical figures with a weighty, high regard that frequently drains them of life and reduces what should be tempestuous battles to tempests in teapots. For instance, Wolfe famously wrote long, and many believe that without the strenuous, heavy-handed intervention of editor extraordinaire Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe would never have achieved anything resembling the high literary stature his work still enjoys. Their wrangling must, at times, have been as titanic as Wolfe’s outsize ego, but in this production they rarely raise their voices to one another.
Though all of the actors are clearly professional and do a fine job, few manage to break out of the trap of decorum. Maggie Marshall, as sister Mabel, has moments of true emotion, and Carla Pridgen, as mother Julia, summons the requisite fierceness of devotion to her boy, even in the face of harsh words he wrote about her and her late husband. Stephen Moore, as brother Fred, gives the most consistently enjoyable performance, deploying a slight stutter and a winning “big idiot’s grin” to excellent effect. Charming, well-performed old songs open the second act (the strains of “Beautiful Dreamer” haunt the play), but it’s difficult to say precisely why they’re there. Occasionally, the actors don’t seem altogether certain why they’re there. This effect is underlined when, too frequently, they find themselves in heavy, face-obscuring shadow on an open, otherwise well-lit, handsome set.
Return of an Angel tells its fascinating story well, and serves as an educational experience that does what one would hope most: encourages the audience to return to Wolfe’s writing. But neither play nor production ever achieves the excitement inherent in the subject.
Return of an Angel, by Sandra Mason. Directed by Michael Lilly. Set design: RC Berls. Costume design: Ida Bostian. Light design: Rob Bowen. Incidental music composed, arranged, and performed by Jan Powell. Stage Manager: Jamie Nicholson. With Tom Dalton (Thomas Wolfe), Sonny Bell (Max Perkins), Maggie Marshall (Mabel Wolfe Wheaton), Carla Pridgen (Julia Wolfe), Stephen Moore (Fred Wolfe), Tiffany Cade (Lola Love), Randy McCracken (George McCoy), Joanna Beck (Margaret Roberts), and Diana LaSpada (Clara). Violin: Ueli Schweizer. Songs: Stephen Collins Foster. Songs performed by: Joanna Beck, Maggie Marshall, and Stephen Moore.
Shows through Oct. 11. Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut Street in downtown Asheville. Tickets $22 for adults, $19 seniors and students. 254-1320 and www.ashevilletheatre.org.