Plan-B Theatre Company: “Wallace”

Wallace is comprised of the solo plays Fire, based on the writings of Wallace Thurman adapted by Jenifer Nii, and Where I Come From, based on the writings of Wallace Stegner, adapted by Debora Threedy.

Wallace Stegner, often called the Dean of Western Writers, was a historian, novelist, short story writer, and environmentalist. He is perhaps most famous for his books Big Rock Candy Mountain, Angle of Repose, and The Spectator Bird.

Wallace Thurman was an African-American novelist during the Harlem Renaissance. His residence at 267 West 136th Street in Harlem, dubbed Niggeratti Manor, was the hub of that renaissance that included Langston Hughes amongst its number.

Both men claimed Salt Lake City as their home.

The play is an original piece about two¬†influential¬†writers from Salt Lake City, whom you may or may not have ever heard of… I know I hadn’t, at least I didn’t think I had. I knew Stegner, but not his name. His short stories were often included in various required readings in literature text books when I was in school, and I recognized his words and voice during the reading of The Colt in the play. And I had heard of his books, though I must confess to never having read them (though I will now). Thurman, I didn’t know, but I knew the company he kept, and after meeting him last night in this play, I will likely read his works as well.

The two stories, two one-act-one-man plays, really, are perfectly interwoven (braided-together, is how the authors put it), and create a much stronger story because of it. Reflecting on the two plays individually, I don’t think they would be as strong on their own as they are together. The Stenger play, Where I Come From, beautifully covers Stegner and has some nice emotional moments, but the overall feel for non-Stegner viewers would be that it was a “nice” play. So too, with Fire, the Thurman play. It’s frenetic and explosive, which accurately depicts the character’s life, but on it’s own it would again be a nice piece for the fans of, if not Thurman himself, the Harlem Renaissance. Together these plays juxtapose one another, and aid one another in ways that seem impossible in the conception. Like a modern “Mash-Up” these two characters couldn’t seem more different from one another, but when you put them together you see what they have in common; they ultimately manage to compliment one another and aid each other’s presentation.

Rapier’s direction also goes a long way toward the success of the show. Stegner, in his warm western-style sweater, sits with us and gives us a grandfatherly discussion of his life. Occasionally he bursts with emotion, but for the most part he just matter-of-factly speaks to us from a chair. Thurman, on the other hand, climbs all over the set, using the desk as not just a desk or a table, but also a platform. His frenetic movements are a welcome burst of energy to the sedate Stegner, and Stegner’s calm and easy moments give us a welcome relief from the ups and downs of Thurman. In each case, I was always happy when one character was returning to the stage as the other concluded their scene. It wasn’t because I disliked what had just gone on, but more that I needed them to return in that moment to change things up again and keep my attention.

Wallace Stegner is beautifully captured in the performance of Richard Scharine. His performance is wonderfully sincere, and his delivery is like what a grandfather or beloved professor may give to his closest friends and family. It’s really how we all felt in his presence, like his friends and family, and that made us love him. You wanted to sit down and have a cup of coffee or tea with him, and just let him tell you about his life. And his emotions toward his father, mother, and beloved wife made him all the more real and endearing to us, and gave us a different perspective on his writings.

Carleton Bluford as Wallace Thurman was a truly stand-out performance. He presented a believable and likable character whose life and health was falling apart around him. In counterpose to Scharine’s performance he seemed to keep us, like those in Thurman’s life, at more of a distance. If Thurman’s life was a brief flame (like the matches he struck in representation of his works), then we, the audience, were the moths; never certain if it was safe to be near him, but drawn to him nonetheless.

Any criticisms I have are strictly nits in what was otherwise a flawless production. We were shown a book by Stegner and a magazine that Thurman had published, but when Thurman pulled out his rejection letters and scattered them around the set, it was clear the pages were blank. It’s really unimportant that they were blank, but it did pull me out of the moment as I questioned why the pages were blank when the other props were clearly printed. Likewise when Thurman was supposed to present a train ticket, his hand was empty. He could have just as easily had the prop and returned it to his pocket after presenting it. Again, it’s not really important that he had it, but when he had so much else, his journal, his flask, it pulled me out in that moment to not see it.

Typically, a review is used to help (or hinder) the sale of tickets. Wallace doesn’t need my review to help with ticket sales, in fact, it’s sold out for nearly all of it’s scheduled performances. An extra performance has been added on Sunday, March 14, at 5:30 PM. Tickets for the added performance went on sale today. However, seating is limited in the studio, so you may be out of luck on this one.

Along with the world premiere of this play, there are additional opportunities for Stegner and Thurman fans this month…

There is Uconoclasts, a gallery display of visual and written works by “literary mavericks from Utah’s past,” including Stegner and Thurman. This display is in the Rose Wagner Art Gallery, and is available for viewing before and after the performances of Wallace.

There are two free film screenings at the Tower Theater of Brother To Brother (about the Harlem Renaissance) and the documentary on Wallace Stegner on March 8th and 9th, respectively.

Finally, there is a display of the two author’s complete works at Ken Sanders Used Books.

WALLACE, Plan-B Theatre Company. Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (138 West 300 South, Salt Lake City). Nightly curtain at 8:00 PM March 4-14; matinees on March 6, 7, 13, & 14. For tickets call (801) 355-ARTS or visit www.arttix.org.

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