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at Victory Gardens Theater
By Albert Williams
When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. . . . When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and . . . the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at. –L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz
The premise of Was, Road-works Productions’ superb new story-theater piece, will surely sound like a sick joke to some. The basis for this play, scripted and staged by Paul Edwards, is novelist Geoff Ryman’s reworking of the Wizard of Oz myth, in which 19th-century Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gael endures troubles far worse than winged monkeys and wicked witches. Abandoned by her ne’er-do-well actor father, Dorothy is orphaned when her mother dies of diphtheria and sent to live with her mother’s sister, Emma Gulch, and Em’s husband Henry. Here her life is uprooted by one psychic cyclone after another: Em shoots Dorothy’s troublesome dog Toto, for example, then leads the child to believe her beloved pet has run away. As Dorothy matures, she’s ensnared by Henry in a furtive, abusive affair (which Em refuses to confront) that teaches her to connect pleasure, pain, love, hate, and guilt. Finally Dorothy blurts out her tormented secret in school, where her substitute teacher Mr. Baum–yes, Mr. L. Frank Baum–is so upset by her situation that he brings the matter to the principal, then loses his job for doing so. The shame of scandal is the straw that breaks Dorothy’s mind: she’s committed to an asylum, where half a century later she astounds her keepers by declaring that the 1939 Judy Garland musical being shown on TV is her life story–only it wasn’t like that at all.
This tale might seem a perverse parody of Baum’s beloved children’s book and the classic movie it spawned. But Was is deeply serious–which is not to say it’s without humor. Richly detailed, wryly comic, and full of compassion, it’s rooted in a passionate concern for children, the adults who care for them, and the messes they often make of each other’s lives. Far from being two-dimensional villains–Ryman knows the absurdity of the famous question “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”–Em and Henry are pained and needy. That need is the source of their crimes, and Dorothy’s tragedy is theirs too.
Baum himself insisted that his 1900 novel was just “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out,” as he wrote in the introduction. But in fact the story has always been filled with heartaches and nightmares, which the creators of the 1939 movie explored as they expanded the plot’s hints of suspense and terror–most notably the role of the Wicked Witch of the West and her Kansas alter ego, Miss Gulch. Underneath its elements of magic and make-believe, The Wizard of Oz is about the deep unhappiness with which children often view a world that seems to (and often does) neglect and even abuse them.
Ryman’s genius in his 1992 novel is to probe this subtext to create a compelling story at once new and familiar. In turn, playwright-director Edwards and the splendid young Roadworks ensemble transform their material into the best kind of chamber theater, in which narration and dialogue are treated as equally dramatic. Edwards, a Northwestern University alumnus and teacher, was a student of Robert Breen, who advocated chamber theater as a technique for preserving a book’s literary integrity on the stage. Too often works in this style embalm rather than enliven their sources, but Roadworks’ Was is almost unfailingly gripping. If the glossy, reverential adaptations that Edwards’s Northwestern colleague Frank Galati has put on at Steppenwolf had half the vitality of this show, Chicago theater would be a lot better off.
The key to this show’s vividness is its characters–lively, quirky, and played with a moment-by-moment energy, they make us believe that their minds and emotions are developing even as we watch. For the play’s parallel protagonist-narrators–Dorothy and Jonathan, a modern-day AIDS patient whose investigation into Dorothy’s life motors this postmodern historical epic–telling their stories is the way they live them. The mercurial Dorothy–Jennifer Erin Roberts, who ranges breathtakingly from shy sweetness to enigmatic curiosity to demonic, foulmouthed rage without missing a beat–illumines the anguished, sardonic alienation of mental disturbance without resorting to grotesque stereotypes or sentimental cliche. As Jonathan, Patrick McNulty conveys a crisp yet whimsical intelligence that keeps the character’s obsession with the Oz legend from coming across as fey triviality.
Jonathan, who starred in a series of horror films not unlike the Nightmare on Elm Street cycle, embarks on a search for his lost innocence that leads him back to the mid-1950s, when as a child he watched the same broadcast of The Wizard of Oz that the aged Dorothy watched in her mental home. His guide down the yellow brick road of his own past is Bill, a psychiatrist who volunteers at an AIDS clinic–and who knew Dorothy when he was an orderly at her asylum. Out of such fateful coincidences the plot of Was is woven; the contrivances work more often than not because of our involvement with the characters and the skill with which the action jumps back and forth across the past century. Only at the very end, as Jonathan’s AIDS dementia leads him into hallucinatory union with Dorothy’s world, does the play seem to spin out of control; but like The Wizard of Oz’s cyclone, Was sets the audience down with a resounding but gentle bump in the form of an exquisite final image.
Ryman’s novel is beautifully written, but Roadworks’ play improves on its source, partly because of the marvelous acting. Standouts in the supporting cast include Debbie Bisno’s fierce, peaked Aunt Em; Thomas Kelly’s repulsive yet moving Uncle Henry; Kwaku Driskell as Bill and Derek Hasenstab as Jonathan’s perplexed lover Ira; Amanda Weier as Etta, the deformed lady who befriends Dorothy like a real-life Glinda; and Lance Baker in two roles, as a dapper Baum in straw boater and handlebar mustache and as Wilbur Jewell, the gentle neighbor boy who functions as real-life Scarecrow playmate to lonely Dorothy. When the enigmatic Wilbur hangs himself (the character was inspired by a newspaper account of a suicide in 1870s Kansas that Ryman discovered), he is found suspended and splayed like a scarecrow–an example of the inventive stage imagery that’s the other main reason Was makes even better theater than it does literature.
As fine as Ryman’s prose is, his compression of well-researched history and movie-inspired fantasy comes across much more clearly in Edwards’s adaptation. Watching Dorothy, in her plain blue-and-white pinafore, play with the gawky, unkempt Wilbur clarifies their relation to Baum’s Dorothy and Scarecrow better than reading the novel does, for example; and the scene of Em chasing the naughty Toto with a broomstick confirms the rightness of turning her into the witch figure. Luke Cantarella’s simple set, nearly bare except for a pair of hay-covered hillocks, evokes the dry, dusty Kansas landscape with help from Joel Moritz’s impeccable lighting, and Kristine Knanishu’s costumes are character- and period-perfect.
Edwards has rearranged the time-jumping, episodic book in ingenious ways: for example, when Jonathan, snugly huddled in his mother’s lap, watches The Wizard of Oz on TV, Edwards replaces the movie with a stylized yet terrifying depiction of Dorothy’s mental breakdown, in-spired by the famous film scene of her running through a forest of monster trees. Inevitably the play omits some interesting material, including the novel’s wealth of historical digressions (such as an account of Kansas’s bloody abolitionist heritage) and a third plot tracing the dysfunctional family life of Judy Garland, her domineering mother, and her bisexual father. (Some people, as the Scarecrow says in the movie, go both ways.) This trimming brings the Dorothy/Jonathan relationship into sharper focus, making the play in some ways stronger than the book. (Happily Edwards has retained a hilarious scene depicting Garland on the Wizard of Oz set–as a feisty, raunchy little diva who jokes that her wig’s pigtails aren’t long enough to hide her decidedly postpubescent breasts.)
It’s appropriate that a Chicago theater should mount the first stage version of Was. After all, it was here that Baum invented Oz and its inhabitants, first as a book and then as a hit play, using the neoclassical towers of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition as the inspiration for his City of Emeralds. Was is itself a jewel–on the stage as on the page, a beautifully balanced work of brain, courage, and heart.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Phil M. Kohlmetz.