Thomas Wolfe is one of those singular American literary figures. His four long novels – two of which were published posthumously – were both huge critical and public successes in the early half of the 20th century, but have mostly faded from both college syllabi and library shelves. Faulkner once described Wolfe as the greatest talent of their generation, yet his style of rhapsodic, poetic, unabashedly personal prose has few defenders or imitators. Perhaps Wolfe's most frequent calling card is the title of his fourth novel, You Can't Go Home Again, often cited without any knowledge of the marvelous story on which it initially sat.
So it's worthy of applause in itself that Mother of Invention has remounted the 1957 stage adaptation of Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, under the direction of Austin Pendleton. Based on Wolfe's first, best-loved, and most in-print novel, the autobiographical story tells of a boarding house in Altamont, NC, owned and operated by the powerful, pragmatic Eliza Gant. Amidst a large cast of stragglers and family members, the protagonist Eugene Gant (a cipher for Wolfe himself, as was Altamont a cipher for Asheville, in which he grew up in remarkably similar circumstances to these) seeks an outlet for both his artistic perspective and his unquenchable desire to experience life. His powerful but passive personality is too-easily swallowed by Eliza's caustic nature, by the gargantuan, drunken energy of his father W.O. Gant, and even by the reproval of his focused, bitter sister Helen. Only a new female boarder, Laura James, and his beloved brother Ben offer him any solace from the tribulations of daily life that hamper his attempts at transcendence.
The work that Ketti Frings did in translating the novel to the stage provides a master-class in adaptation, as she turned Wolfe's rambling, largely-experimental narrative into a taut well-made play, without sacrificing the archetypal power of the characters. In many ways, Pendleton and his cast do marvelous justice to these archetypes. Jim Broaddus as W.O. commands the stage in the same way that the character commands Gene's fear and respect, and Gina Stahlnecker as Eliza often strikes a poignant balance of uncompromising strength and desperate delusion. With a character that is too easily relegated to passive observer, the perfectly cast Keegan McDonald brings to Eugene a sense of wonder that has been beaten into submission. When he explodes, we see the passion that boils inside him, but the rest of the time, we also realize that nobody save Ben knows about that passion at all. And especially in the early crowd scenes, Pendleton's lazy-river pacing creates a wonderful sense of an ambling Southern afternoon with nowhere to go, a perfect sense of the lonely world that helped shape Wolfe into the powerhouse he was.
Unfortunately, many of these strengths also compromise the production's potential. Pendleton's pacing equally counteracts the moments of fire and fury, both in terms of performance and rhythm. To be fair, Stahlnecker seemed to struggle at times with Eliza's many, many long speeches and rants, but she also focused too heavily on a relaxed nature that bespoke patience, whereas Eliza's biting criticisms want unceasing focus. Broaddus's commanding presence perhaps overstepped the deep-seeded defeat that also permeates the character, so that when Ben calls him a "fallen titan," it's hard to understand where that comes from. And much of the production's lazy pacing undermines its most devastating theme of time's devastation. Because we rarely get a sense of the way Eugene is being overwhelmed by a conflux of feelings, people, and moments that force themselves upon him only to flitter away, some of the marvelous language in the latter half doesn't land with nearly the profundity that it could. Part of the problem is that the rather tiny Dorothy Strelsin Theatre is not quite suitable for a play of this size. Sight-line issues are not only a nuisance but are also often an impediment towards understanding crucial plot and emotional details. Perhaps a slightly less realistic approach might have served the play in such tight quarters.
But I say again that sharing this work is itself worthy of applause. There are moments that register with full and deep effect, some the language resonates precisely because characters don't underline its poetry, and the central scene of the second act is devastating even with sight-line problems. Thomas Wolfe's work deserves to live on as more than a novelty, and a labor of love like this is commendable and deserving of an audience.