Christian Neuhaus, Dane101
Photo by Nick Berard
I’ve been entertained by each of the productions by Forward Theater Company that I’ve seen and written about for Dane101.com, but their latest (closing this Sunday) is one that I found both entertaining and instructive. It’s A Thousand Words, by local writer Gwendolyn Rice, and it provides a sterling demonstration of how an “ideas” play can also be be dramatically interesting. There are many questions that are prompted by the play — driven by an exploration of who can “possess” art — and the prompting comes naturally, through realistic and well-drawn characters’ reactions to an enticing but plausible scenario.
Scenes alternate between a contemporary and historical narrative. In the present day, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Sally Quinn is charged with obtaining from Cuba some newly-discovered photographs by Walker Evans, which the Met has a claim on due to a provision in Evans’s will. Before she undertakes that task she makes a trip to Kansas to arrange a Met exhibit featuring the work of a community of quilters, and the two pursuits conflate unexpectedly in the person of a woman claiming to be Evans’ granddaughter. The story of the 1930s follows Evans himself as he and newly-acquired writing partner Shirley Hughes, on assignment from the Farm Security Administration, go on their own trip to Kansas to chronicle rural poverty.
The structure and plot of A Thousand Words invites one to consider many ideas, but not in a prescriptive way. Ownership of art. The connection between art and story. Use of art for a purpose, illustrated by the Farm Security Administration and the Met. The value of folk art with respect to “conventional” art — Quinn looks askance at the idea of Walker Evans tote bags but appears to have no problem suggesting that kind of merchandising for the quilters. The business of art (Quinn’s boss at the Met isn’t a fan of the kind of collaboration among arts organization that’s been going on in Madison).
The two stories play out in an intriguing way (“like a thriller,” in the words of A.V. Club Madison), with scenes parsing out a succession of interesting wrinkles to their respective plots. The historical scenes had particular appeal for me, due in large part to the way Evans charismatically insinuated himself into a mentor kind of role for Hughes. One moment between the pair that especially stood out for me, because it was such great writing about writing, was when Evans asks Hughes to create a word picture of a woman they see on a train. Hughes begins with something literary, then more authentic, and then, prompted by Evans, chooses the essential element — the “one word.”
The performers maintained the high quality Forward has established with its ensemble casts. One of the reasons I liked the 1930s scenes so much as the appeal Josh Aaron McCabe showed as a charming man-of-the-world type that wouldn’t be out of place in a screwball comedy. (McCabe is a UW-Madison MFA recipient I saw in University Theatre’s Sight Unseen, another play about art. He was also in a Sherlock Holmes spoof, something I have some affinity with.) T. Stacy Hicks was enjoyable as the fastidious autocrat who oversaw Quinn at the Met. Sarah Day as Sally Quinn was engaging as always, and (as she did in Forward’s Why Torture is Wrong...) got an enthusiastic audience response to her vigorous delivery of the Madison equivalent of a “USA! USA!” chant.
The script for A Thousand Words was developed partly through the Wisconsin Wrights project. It was a pleasure to see Forward do a full-length world premiere by a Wisconsin playwright so early in the company’s existence, and I’m glad to see them continue new play development in 2012 with staged readings of two more new plays.
A Thousand Words is at Overture Center’s Promenade Hall Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m, Saturday at 4 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. There’s also an art exhibition at Overture in conjunction with the play. The play will also be performed at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre starting February 16.
Posted on 2/2/12