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Paulanne Simmons

Wild about Wilder

"The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden"
Directed by Carl Forsman
"Pullman Car Hiawatha"
Directed by Henry Wishcamper
June 19 to July 18
The Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th St. (between avenues A & B)
Presented by Keen Company
Tues. thru Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m.
$19, Smarttix (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons July 7, 2004


Clockwise from Top Left: Ann Dowd, Ryan Ward, Wilbur Edwin Henry, Laura Plouffe in "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden." Photo by: Josh Bradford

Decades after Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth" have become American classics, it's hard for contemporary audiences to remember how radical these plays seemed when they were first staged in the thirties and forties. Even fewer people are aware that before these great plays were written, Wilder experimented with several one-acts that presaged many of the themes and techniques that would dominate his later works.

Two such plays are "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha," now presented by Keen Company in a double-bill at The Connelly Theater.

Both plays take the audience on a journey that is both cosmic and quotidian. In "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden," directed by Carl Forsman, Ma and Pa Kirby (Ann Dowd and Wilbur Edwin Henry) travel by car with their two younger children, Arthur (Ryan Ward) and Caroline (Laura Plouffe), to visit their daughter, Beulah (Lael Logan). "Pullman Car Hiawatha," directed by Henry Wishcamper, takes passengers in a sleeper car from New York to Chicago by way of the universe.

In both plays the very capable Jonathan Hogan plays the Stage Manager - a character that some call the "authorial" voice but which could also be called the Prime Mover or God.

In "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" the Stage Manager is the offstage voices of neighbors waving goodbye as well as onstage presences like the man who fills the Kirby's car with gas. In "Pullman Car Hiawatha," he becomes more authoritative, directing the actors playing the minutes (gossips), hours (philosophers except for twelve, who is also a theologian) and the planets, as well as The Field the train is passing through, the Tramp who rides under the train, the ghost of a Workman who died laying the tracks and others.

Martin Carey and Maria Dizzia in "Pullman Car Hiawatha." Photo by: Josh Bradford

As stipulated by the author, both plays use minimal scenery. In "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden," chairs and stools suggest seats in a car, while Henry pantomimes changing gears and the other actors pantomime changing seats (after Ma Kirby takes exception to a sassy and sacrilegious remark made by Arthur). In "Pullman Car Hiawatha," passengers sit on back-to-back chairs and actors chalk in the floor plan of the car as well as mythological and mathematical elements of the cosmos on the back wall.

But for all their tricks of style and otherworldly elements, both these plays are firmly rooted in the here-and-now. And both directors have paid careful attention to the details that maintain those roots.

Jenny Mannis's costumes reflect those times when boys wore short pants, girls wore white anklets and everyone wore hats. And the naturalistic portrayal of the Kirby family (Dowd is particularly effective as the stern but sensitive mother of the clan) makes them every bit as believable as your grandfather's next-door-neighbor.

All of the characters in the Pullman car - a mad woman in the care of a nurse and a guard, a fussy grandmother, an ailing woman and her husband - are so well defined they take their place in the universe and stand apart from it at the same time.

In theater today we often see experimentation that seems to have no other raison d'etre than to shock. But in these two plays, the granddaddy of them all, we see a playwright who is both innovative and accessible. What a pleasure that a company as talented as Keen has decided it's time to revive Wilder's timeless work. [Simmons]

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