Halsted Theatre Centre

Within the delicious stream of fanciful, florid folk language that ripples through Stephen Wade’s solo story-telling show On the Way Home, one word stands out for sheer elaborateness: “absquatulating.” It’s used in a sequence Wade adapted from an early-19th-century Davey Crockett almanac, published to spread the legend of the frontier politician among his pre-TV public by relating how he “teetotaciously exflunctified his opponents.” The almanac relates how Crockett and a companion were passing through the woods one day when they heard the music of an “absquatulating banjo player” in the distance. Searching for the source of the sound, they found a man adrift in the river. After they pulled him out, they asked him why he was playing the banjo in such desperate circumstances; he explained that he figured nothing was more likely to bring people together than music.

“Absquatulating” means luminous, or illuminating; efflorescent would fit, too. It loses something in the translation. All these semisynonyms fit Stephen Wade to a T–but none sums him up quite so well as absquatulating. It perfectly describes the radiant, blossoming aura generated by a man completely, blissfully, and winningly enraptured by a career that’s really a mission. With his bald dome circled by shocks of salt-and-pepper hair, Wade rather resembles a medieval monk–and he brings a monk’s devotion to his work.

Wade’s work is telling stories and playing banjo. At the same time. Though the music alone would be entertaining (as it is on Wade’s Flying Fish Records release Dancing Home, a collection of instrumentals from this and his other stage show, Banjo Dancing), it’s the combination of tune and text that makes Wade’s performance so unusual and delightful. Onstage at the Halsted Theatre Centre, Wade establishes a symbiotic link between the actions of his hands as he plays the banjo (and sometimes his feet, clog dancing in place to the rhythms he’s picking and plunking) and the quirky bits of Americana he passes on to the audience from such sources as Mark Twain, William Saroyan, the Chicago radical writer Jack Conroy, and oral-history documents gathered by the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project. Learning the banjo, Wade says at one point, was an invitation to “an archaeological expedition into America”; now he’s sharing some of what he dug up.

But there’s nothing museumlike about On the Way Home, which Wade premiered in 1989 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (It was the successor to Banjo Dancing, a 1979 Chicago hit that went on to become the longest-running show in D.C. history–and one of the five longest-running productions in American theater.) That’s partly because of Wade’s onstage manner–shy, sly, soulful, and scholarly, a con man/college professor whose slightly spacey quality really reflects Wade’s absorption in each moment. But the show’s liveliness is mainly due to the material–most of it antique, but all of it vivid and rooted in the tangible reality of universal human experience.

I won’t repeat the stories here–I’ll leave it to you to discover them when you go to the show, as you must do. (It runs through the Christmas season, a perfect schedule for a perfect family entertainment.) I’ll just say that these tales–of riverboat pilots and railroad riders and slaves and sports stars and a Dixieland cornet player who reminisces about a jam so fine it was “like we was up on Lake Michigan playin’ for Mr. Al Capone hisself”–revolve around two basic themes: travel and music. The travel is always by boat or train–no hurried cars or airplanes here, which helps explain the anecdotes’ luxurious, loquacious quality.

The music is almost always acoustic (even though Wade does rely on the occasional electronic sound effect–the production’s most jarringly inconsistent element). On the Way Home, which appropriately marks a homecoming for this native north-side Chicagoan, begins with the 39-year-old Wade’s recollection of escaping into the unfretful world of fretted instruments in the 1960s. Like many boys, he was bitten by the rock-and-roll bug–which he demonstrates by playing the introductory riff from “Secret Agent Man” on electric guitar. But Wade took the road less traveled, switching from rock guitar to bluegrass banjo. Accordingly, on the wall of director-designer Milton Kramer’s set–a dark, wood-paneled re-creation of a 19th-century Appalachian home that lacks only a butter churn to be picture perfect–stand a half-dozen banjos, each with its own sound and personality, in proud and reverential array. They’re stacked like rifles in a hunter’s home–in this house, music is as essential as food.

The evocative set aside, On the Way Home steers clear of southern stereotypes. Wade is a northern city kid–he talks of such childhood experiences as browsing at Marshall Field’s Loop store (proceeding from the fourth-floor toys to the third-floor books to the fifth-floor ladies’ underwear departments as his adolescence progressed), watching chicks hatch at the Museum of Science and Industry, and playing Great Escape on his bike by the Lincoln Park lagoon. Instead of overalls and a flannel shirt, he wears a rumpled gray suit and loosened necktie; and his portrayals of different roles–black and white, young and old, male and female–are remarkably free of physical or verbal caricature. There’s no dialect humor here; instead, Wade summons up his characters’ sounds by inhabiting their essence while never relinquishing his own. This isn’t an actor’s performance; it’s a marvelous evening spent with a man who does something almost no one else does, does it superbly, and just loves doing it–a world-class storyteller and an utterly absquatulating banjo player.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.