Loving Little Egypt

Griffin Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

“Only connect!” wrote E.M. Forster in How-ards End. “Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” Mourly Vold, the hero of Loving Little Egypt, isn’t quite a monk or a beast; but isolation and connection are the conflicting currents that churn through this lonely young would-be scientist.

A student at a high school for the blind in 1920s Nova Scotia, Mourly is severely–but not totally–visually handicapped. He’s able to see with the aid of special telescopic spectacles, which separates him from his sightless classmates as well as from the sighted world. Sensitive and introverted, he’s blessed and cursed with talents that both compensate for and highlight his alienation: an extremely high intelligence, an intuitive understanding of physics and electronics, and a knack for vocal mimicry that enables him to imitate the roar of a wild beast, the carping voice of his schoolteacher, and the clicking sound of circuits connecting. This last ability allows him to hack his way into long-distance phone lines, offering him both unlimited access to the outside world and refuge from it; direct contact with another human being is terrifying for this gifted, good-hearted, but socially dysfunctional adolescent.

That’s the premise of Loving Little Egypt, the Griffin Theatre’s adaptation of Thomas McMahon’s 1987 novel. Like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, McMahon’s quirky story combines fact and fancy, bringing together fictional characters like Mourly with such historical figures as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and William Randolph Hearst–four very different men, all born in the mid-1800s, who held towering positions in 20th-century communications. Bell’s invention of the telephone, Edison’s development of the phonograph and motion picture projector, Tesla’s contribution to radio technology, and Hearst’s reshaping of mass media paved the way for our own era of cell phones, cyberspace chat rooms, interactive digital television, and hype-mongering Web sites. These men understood electronic communications’ potential for empowering humanity–or enslaving it. Mourly, the young inheritor of the world they helped build, comes to understand this potential as well, a lesson that helps him emerge from his cybernetic cocoon–the crux of McMahon’s imaginative, offbeat tale.

Brought to the stage by playwright William Massolia and director Richard Barletta, Loving Little Egypt begins at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the showplace for what a vigorous young Tom Edison called “the inventions that will change the lives of every man, woman, and child in America.” But the high-tech wonders that he and his colleague-turned-competitor Tesla introduced had trouble competing with the more tangible splendor of Little Egypt, the Syrian exotic dancer whose act was the fair’s biggest sensation. Some 30 years later, the teenage Mourly discovers the startling, arousing image of Little Egypt on an Edison kinetoscope. So when he establishes an underground nationwide telephone network for disabled teens like himself, using homemade phones constructed from cigar boxes, he chooses “Little Egypt” as his code name: like her tiny cinematic image, he seems to exist only in a virtual universe, living in the phone lines the way Little Egypt lives in the projector.

Seeking to embrace the real life he also fears, Mourly leaves school and heads off to meet his hero Alexander Bell, now an elderly sheep farmer in Nova Scotia. Bell becomes a surrogate father to Mourly, whose real father was killed in an automobile accident. Mourly also feels a special kinship with Bell’s deaf wife and former student, Mabel (the inventor always considered teaching the deaf his principal profession); just as Mourly can see only with special glasses, Mabel can communicate only by reading lips. By now Bell has no involvement with the telephone company that bears his name, so when it begins to upgrade its network of cables and inadvertently threatens to eradicate the “party line” Mourly has set up for his blind friends, Mourly has no compunction about disrupting the new system, popping his tongue against the roof of his mouth to duplicate the signals that activate–and overload–the circuits.

Yellow journalist Hearst’s jingoistic coverage of Mourly’s adolescent prank transforms it into a terrorist plot by “red spies”–an account motivated by the publisher’s wish to rouse the government against Mexico, whose leftist policies threaten his commercial interests. In his campaign against the cadre of “radicals” led by the mysterious “Little Egypt,” Hearst enlists the aging, arrogant Edison and a rising young commie hunter named J. Edgar Hoover. To combat these powerful men, Mourly recruits an unlikely army of his own: Tesla; Edison’s estranged alcoholic son, Sparky; Mourly’s blind former schoolmate, a perpetually horny would-be playboy named Humberhill; and a spunky young woman named Francine–her blossoming relationship with Mourly provides the emotional payoff of this “scientific romance.”

First produced by Griffin in 1991, Loving Little Egypt is even timelier today: the recent proliferation of talk technology highlights the play’s theme of electronic communication versus human contact. Happily, this revival is also considerably better than the original. Massolia has made the sprawling narrative clearer and more pointed, while Barletta’s staging is far more brisk and fluid than his stodgy production nine years ago. There are still some flaws. The play runs about 15 minutes too long, due mostly to the choppy last section of act one–blackouts between scenes allow the supporting actors to switch between their multiple roles but interrupt the flow. Barletta needs to trust the fact that audiences enjoy watching actors transform from one character to another. Other problems include the unconvincing recorded sound effects for Mourly’s animal impersonations and some hammily caricatured supporting performances, among them Thomas Bateman as Edison; Eric Roach as a paddle-wielding principal; Tara T. Handron as Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies; and Jan Wiezorek as a crusty old shepherd on Bell’s farm. These actors may be trying to evoke the flamboyant style of the melodramas popular in that era, but their efforts come off like bad children’s theater.

Still, this version of Loving Little Egypt is far more energetically acted than its predecessor. Standouts include Joe Basile, who nicely conveys Mourly’s crankiness and sense of isolation as well as his intelligence and fundamental sweetness; Jonathan Berry, charmingly raffish as Humberhill; Michael Pacas as the aged, eccentric Tesla; Nathaniel Swift as the “Syracuse Stallion,” a member of Mourly’s phone network psychologically brutalized by Hoover’s interrogation; and Eric Slater, whose self-righteous, sincere Hoover displays a zealous sense of duty as admirable as his ruthless tactics are reprehensible. (“You’ll never control me. No one will,” he tells Hearst, proclaiming an independence that generations of American presidents learned to fear.) Kori St. Peter is an engaging Francine, while Melissa Culverwell’s understated compassion as Mabel Bell gives the show its most touching moments.

The visual and aural designs are an effective mix of the old-fashioned and the futuristic. James Raby’s quaint costumes establish the period, as does Massolia’s sound design–lush recordings of rags, waltzes, and marches. Meanwhile, Ann Bartek’s semiabstract set–a mostly bare marblelike playing area decorated with straight and jagged stripes suggesting telephone wires–reminds us that this is a story steeped in a world-changing technological revolution. An affecting and intriguing reflection on the past century’s amazing breakthroughs in communication, Loving Little Egypt also explores our elemental and eternal need for connection.