The man who walked on stage, Will Stutts, according to the Playbill, has done in three decades, well over 1,000 live performances, performing before audiences “estimated to total over one million.” Stutts is the one-man show artist around here.
I’ve been lucky enough to see and review a batch of them: Edgar Allan Poe,
Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, Noel Coward (the man can sing, too), Barrymore and Tallulah Bankhead.
I looked forward to seeing his latest creation: WALT WHITMAN: Liberal and Lusty as Nature. He picked one of our major 19th century poets. As always, Stutts does his research. We learn about Walt’s childhood, growing up on Long Island where his father built houses. “Finally, figuring out, you had to build houses where people wanted them, so we moved to Brooklyn.”
The format is Whitman, as an old man, sitting in a chair, talking to a reporter, who we figure out is Horace Greeley. He reads him one of the few poems we hear all evening. When he finishes, he tells Horace the title, “To a Prostitute.” We learn about his cold father, never taking him in his arms to show affection. Telling us that his mama gave the encouragement to their kids.. Walt has to find a job, and becomes a teacher in a one room school with 60 kids, knowing nothing about how to do it, ending up punching one of the older kids , and getting sued, but then the Judge said the only thing you did wrong was “not hitting him hard enough.” That was one of the rare laughs of the whole evening, I’m afraid.
He becomes a newspaperman, a critic, reviewing Opera, something he knew nothing about. And soon, Walt learns an important lesson. “Life without passion is worthless, you end up carrying it as a burden.”
Civil War breaks out. He says, “Firing on Fort Sumter, provided the spark that was necessary.” We never hear what Whitman believes about Slavery, a serious omission to this reviewer. But, Walt ends up as a nurse in a field hospital, because “I could not bring myself to fight.” We hear some of his thoughts on War. “Politicians, industrialists in their marble places send poor farm boys to be slaughtered.” No one in the audience missed the contemporary connection to Iraq and Afghanistan.
After the war, Walt goes to Washington and takes several government jobs. At this point, the play just got more and more droning. It needs some work. Clearly Stutts is taking shots at Washington today. And well he might. But, the redundancy doesn’t make great theater. And the play whimpers to a close. There have been no real conflicts. Drama, something essential to hold an audience, has been missing. Even the poetry was missing. A few lines from WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOMED… was not enough for me.
Whitman ends up in Camden. And tells Horace, why he doesn’t take the ferry boat over to Philadelphia. “I’m eccentric in Camden. In Philly I’d get lost.” The feeble applause at the end of the evening at THEATRE CONSPIRACY really hurt my ears. I love that company. I’ve raved with delight so often at what they’ve done. MEDIA, THE DUNES, and the most recent BECKY’S NEW CAR, for examples, but Walt Whitman’s night was just not my cup of tea.
However, I’ve talked to a few other people, who liked it. Go see for yourself. Call the box office at (239) 936-3239. Or go online at: www.theatreconspiracy.org The show plays Thursday, Friday and Saturdays, until January 21st at 8 pm. There is a matinee on January 15th at 2 pm.