Sunday, May 10, 2009

Heaven's My Destination

Thought-proving ‘HEAVEN’S MY DESTINATION at CPH, but…

At the start of intermission of ‘HEAVEN’S MY DESTINATION,’ which is getting its world premiere at the Cleveland Play House, the woman sitting next to me leaned over to her companion and loudly whispered, “This is pretty weird, huh?” I think she was echoing the thoughts of many in the audience, especially those who disappeared before the second act.

‘HEAVEN’S MY DESTINATION’ was Thornton Wilder’s first novel set in America. It introduces the audience to George Marvin Brush. Brush, a traveling textbook salesman, is a fervent religious convert who, like his hero Ghandi, wants the world to be a better place and the people in it to lead better lives. “Better” in this case means no smoking, no drinking, everyone being nice to each other and living lives of financial abstinence. Much like Don Quixote, he travels around spreading his version of what it takes to “live the impossible dream.” Of course, he is misunderstood, ostracized, beaten up, ignored, laughed at, arrested, and shunned.

What is not clear in Lee Blessings adaptation of the novel is whether the material is meant to be taken seriously or as a tongue in cheek concept.

Wilder, who spent much of his childhood in Hong Kong and Shanghai was a strict Congregationalist who was brought up on the classics and attended such colleges as Oberlin and Yale. His brother was a New Testament scholar.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author of such plays as ‘OUR TOWN,’ ‘THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH,’ and ‘THE MATCHMAKER,’ he wrote with Asian precision. His preciseness is what makes this play confusing. In Wilders other works, his intentions are clear. We know when to laugh, when to be overcome with nostalgia or emotion. Not so with ‘HEAVEN’S MY DESTINATION.’

The Play House production, under the adept directing of Michael Bloom, is well staged, the acting fine, and the production qualities creative. What’s missing is the message and that’s not Bloom or the cast’s fault. The script is never clear on what Wilder/Blessing was/is trying to say. Is Heaven each person’s destination? Is it impossible to lead the “good” life? Are those who preach goodness bound to be outcasts? Can idealism be converted into realism? These suggestions just touch on the possibilities.

Michael Halling, who starred on Broadway in ‘A TALE OF TWO CITIES,’ ‘IN MY LIFE,’ and ‘THE PAJAMA GAME is believable and gives a textured performance as George Brush. Besides having a depth of acting skills, he has a beautiful singing voice which he uses well tointerpret Josh Schmidt’s musical compositions.

The rest of cast, John Woodson, Diane Dorsey, Christian Kohn, Katie Barrett, Justin Tatum, Kailey Bell and Coutney Anne Nelson are all excellent in multi-roles.

Russell Parkman has created an impressive set, but it is not always clear to what the large pile of antiques which are mounted on a movable turntable, is exposing us. As with the script, it is interesting, but not always clear in purpose.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘HEAVEN’S MY DESTINATION’ receives a well honed production at CPH. In fact, the production outshines the script.