David Beckman’s Becoming Walt Whitman does not pretend to be an historically accurate biography of the poet. Instead, it examines universal questions about identity, creativity and the development of individuality. Utilizing characters known to have influenced the poet, Beckman explores what it might have been like to “become Walt Whitman” in mid 1850s Manhattan when Whitman first introduced Leaves of Grass to a puzzled, scandalized and ultimately thrilled reading public.
The play opens at the phrenological parlor of Mr. Fowler, a place the historical Whitman is known to have frequented. Dominating the stage is Mr. Fowler’s chart of the human head: phrenology was the popular pseudo-science of reading character by feeling bumps on the skull. How, indeed, we are compelled to ask, do we become ourselves? Is it fate? Is it character? Is it choice?
In a series of emotional scenes, we watch Walt interact with his large family including his judgmental but charismatic father, his brutal brother Jesse, and especially his brother Edward who was mentally and physically handicapped, as well as his mother and sister. Later, we hear him defend his poem to Oliver Wendell Holmes and, then, in a central scene, we find him seducing a young man who demands that Walt explain how he became a poet before submitting to Walt’s romantic overtures.
The play convinces as an authentic portrait of the poetic spirit, and effectively utilizes many lines from Leaves of Grass (beautifully performed by Gabriel Grilli as Walt) and actual comments about the poem from Whitman and others.
The performances are consistently fine. Steve North is very effective as the showman phrenologist Fowler as well as Walt Sr., portrayed as a man of remarkable intensity although confined to a sick bed. Peter Warden is fully convincing as Walt’s handicapped but emotionally insightful brother Eddie.
As Walt Whitman, Gabriel Grilli does an excellent job of portraying the physical, emotional and mental vitality of the poet. Drawing on portraits of Walt Whitman, Mr. Grilli captures the physical man with extraordinary success. His poses, movements and facial expressions repeatedly mirror what we know of Whitman’s appearance and bring the man to life. Clearly, Mr. Grilli’s dance background has come into play here, most effectively.
The excellent costumes by designer Tracy Sigrist deserve a special mention. They are carefully constructed with historical authenticity and go a long way to creating a life-like impression and a feel for the time of the play.
Becoming Walt Whitman continues this weekend, closing on Sunday, the 24th. For further information and tickets, click here.—Charles Kruger
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