Review of Return of an Angel at ACT

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.

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18 thoughts on “Review of Return of an Angel at ACT

  1. Jan Powell

    “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster was Thomas Wolfe’s favorite song and was probably played on Julia’s piano many times during his life. And, let’s face it, he was indeed a beautiful dreamer.

  2. Your Copy Editor

    ” . . .One also feels the presence of living history as such local landmarks as Pack Place are named. . . ”

    Pack Place, of course, was not in existence when Thomas Wolfe was alive. Does the writer mean Pack Square?

  3. Patricia Green

    As a professional writer (3 Emmy awards), I’m baffled by Mr. Samuels’ problems with “Return of an Angel.” Has he never seen “Our Town?” The audience is addressed from beginning to end in that play, one of the classics of the American theatre and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. I doubt Thornton Wilder thought he was writing a lecture. In “Songs of Robert,” a one-man show Mr. Samuels directed at N.C. Stage, the audience is also addressed throughout. Does he not consider that a play, either? As for Wolfe’s “tempestuous battles” with Max Perkins — the editor was famous for nurturing and calming his writers, and for being a gentleman of the old school, which is exactly what “Return of an Angel” depicts. I’m sure Wolfe and Perkins fought over the craft and content of the novels — but would those arguments have been more interesting than their complex friendship? I doubt it. That Ms. Mason and Mr. Lilly elected to portray deeper and subtler emotions is a feature, not a bug.

  4. Sybil Thomas

    I’m sorry but when I see Return of
    An Angel (which I am seeing for the second time this year), I am moved, delighted, provoked, and nourished. If that’s not the job of a play, I don’t know what is. A good play by any other name is still a good play. Thank you, Sandra Mason and Michael Lilly.

  5. Chris Manheim

    For me, real theatrical excitement isn’t derived from loud voices raised in “tempestuous battles.” I can get that at home. What’s truly exciting about this production of “Return of an Angel” is its ability to engage the audience emotionally. The evocative use of period “parlor music,” the adroit direction that draws nuanced performances from gifted actors, the elegant script that affords intimate insights into the characters’ thoughts and feelings — all these combine to create compelling theatre that resonates long after tempestuous battles have ceased. Kudos to all involved. I’m coming back, and I’m bringing friends.

  6. Rick Manheim

    This is the best and most professional production of a PLAY that I’ve ever seen at ACT. All I can tell you is that I’ve never cried during a lecture, but I’ve cryed like a baby each of the three times I’ve seen Return of An Angel. Don’t miss it!

  7. Sacred Cow

    People, the reviewers are allowed to dislike a show. You don’t have to try to get personal and attack works that they’ve been involved with as it neither helps the show you obviously like, nor does it discredit their review. This entire thread reads: REVIEWER DISLIKES SHOW: CAST OUTRAGED, RALLIES FRIENDS.

  8. Jan Powell

    Well, I’ve been exploring this website and I love it! What a great way to discuss theatre in Asheville. After living here for three years I have longed for a space to seriously talk about theatre. I want to thank all the supportive people who have commented on behalf of “Return of an Angel.” I actually thought the review, though not researched, was actually quite nice. My main quibble, and I’m surprised that no one else mentioned it, was that Thomas Dalton playing Thomas Wolfe and Sonny Bell playing Max Perkins were not discussed. I’ve been religiously going to almost every theatrical event in the area for three years and I have never in those three years seen actors that could even come close to these two wonderful performers. I was amazed that the Lillys were able to secure them to come and be a part of our little play. Maybe it’s just me, after all I was only a casting director in Hollywood for 30 years, but I thought I knew talent when I saw it. Please take a second look at the talent on stage in this play. We are lucky to have these actors in our very small talent pool in Asheville. Yea, Mountain Xpress Theatre blog! Now I know where to come after seeing the latest theatre in Asheville.

  9. Brenda Lilly, Producing Director, Occasional Theat

    Dear Mr. or Ms. Sacred Cow: I regret to inform you that the cast has not seen this review and will not see it until after the show closes — as is our policy. To accuse them of this ‘rally’ is both insulting and inaccurate. I suggest that the comments are from patrons who bought tickets, enjoyed the play, read the review and felt it did not reflect their point of view. As ME provides readers the option of making comments, they did so. And while you speciously accuse our highly skilled, professional cast of these absurd actions, I wonder if you’ve seen the play to form your own opinion?

  10. Jan Powell

    Sacred Cow…Ouch! Being involved with the show personally I didn’t take it that the reviewer didn’t like the show. I thought it was, for the most part, a positive review and if I wasn’t involved I would probably want to see it based on Mr. Stevens review. Most of my friends have enjoyed seeing all the reviews we’ve gotten and are glad that reviewers took an interest. Thanks to Mountain Xpress for coming.

  11. Theatre Goer

    One would think that seasoned professional writers, like Patricia Green and Brenda Lilly, would not bother to reply to critics or blog commentators.

  12. Jan Powell

    Dear Theatre Goer: One would think that such seasoned professionals as Ms. Green and Ms. Lilly would be just the kind of person one would want and welcome to blog on their site…you know, people who actually are literate, informed and well written. And if I’m not mistaken it is just this sort of commentary that this website was designed for…a place where opinions can be shared by people like yourself and the others here who apparently really care about theatre in Asheville. Thanks for making it interesting.

  13. Sacred Cow

    I think what Theatre Goer is getting at is that usually such professionals are above the fray when it comes to things like reviews on blogs. One of the primary rules of the internet when engaging in discourse on a site such as this is “Don’t Feed The Troll”, which is to say, don’t encourage the people making snarky comments about your show. My comment had nothing to do with the quality of this show however, I’m sure all the people involved do a lovely job, but having read the script I found the show to be nightmarishly uninteresting, but that’s my personal taste. My comment was that people obviously connected with or associated with people who are personally connected with this show disagreed with the review and felt the need to defend the show in hyperbolic comments that read as defensive and at times over the top. I also know how such cast policies work, but that doesn’t stop family and/or friends from ‘rallying’ behind their comrades and cohorts in community theatre. I stand by my original comment that reviewer is allowed to take issue with and/or dislike a show (and Samuels clearly did both–see his god awful review of “Nerve” to see what this guy does when he likes a show–also bring a mop) and they are allowed to do so without they’re own body of work being dissected and used against them as if that somehow makes this review go away.

  14. Tiger Lily

    I’m confused by Sacred Cow’s logic: on the one hand, SC says the reviewer is entitled to his opinion. On the other hand, SC seeks to enforce his or her own rules of decorum when it comes to artists and their friends and/or advocates. Frankly, this is an attack on open dialogue. Worse, SC’s comments arbitrarily undermine the comments of others by ascribing an agenda to others that SC has no evidence to support. Besides, who doesn’t have an agenda, including the reviewer?

  15. Sacred Cow

    I’m not sure what there is to be confused about. It’s happened before on other reviews that the moment a critic doesn’t like something, there’s suddenly some dissection about the critic’s education or past work and it gets a little tedious after a bit.

    There is open dialogue, and then there is “you said something mean about something I liked so I’m going to discredit you on a personal level.”

    I’m not in the business of assigning agendas. I have no stake in this show or this reviewer, as I personally don’t care for this particular critic’s style of criticism and/or writing. I merely commented on how the thread read in response to the review, which to me, seemed defensive and desperate. No evidence? I especially like the point in the thread where the producer said that no one involved with the show would read or respond until the run was done and not 2 posts later someone personally involved with the show runs in and defends it. It’s theatre and we’re all allowed to have differing opinions, and reviewers are allowed to give reviews both positive and negative and we’re allowed to disagree. My main issue is that someone who clearly HAS stake in the show in some form or fashion found the best way to disagree with Steve Samuels is to attack his body of work which is petty and in this cow’s opinion, the low road.

  16. lost in translation

    What was wrong with his review of Nerve? I saw that show and thought it was well performed and well directed.

    I find Steve Samuel Reviews to be compelling, insightful and well-written.

    It’s nice to have a critic in Asheville that brings both an impressive background as well as experience to his theatrical experiences.

  17. Jan Powell

    Wow! To be “nightmarishly uninteresting” this show has sparked a lot of comment. Also, reading a play and actually seeing that play in production are two completely different things. I mean this commment to be constructive having read a lot of plays and seen a lot of productions and having had my mind changed a number of times about the stage-worthiness of the script from first reading to actual production.

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