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I used to teach in humanities programs. We began one with Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Student read it, took its message of self-reliance to heart, and quit school, vowing to live an authentic life from then on.

Walden can do that. It's an eloquent critique of lives lived, says Thoreau, in "quiet desperation" and a clarion call for simplicity and "maximum contact" with nature.

Thoreau often writes like a secular prophet: "Woe be to the generation that lets any higher faculty in its midst go unemployed."

"Talk of heaven! Ye disgrace earth."

Instead of doing good, "set about being good."

Thoreau built a small cabin (he called it a "shanty" and a "hut") about 200 feet from the northern shore of Walden Pond, Massachusetts. For two years, two months, and two days, between 1845 and 1847, he lived in the cabin, a mile from his nearest neighbor.

He began writing Walden in the cabin. Then in a frenzy equal to Beethoven's re-working a score, he revised the text for years and years. To save paper, he even wrote vertical lines over the horizontal ones. The book was published in 1854.

Thoreau - pronounced THURR-oh - never received the acclaim he imagined for Walden. He died of T.B. in 1862. At the funeral, Ralph Waldo Emerson said; "The country knows not yet how great a son it has lost...he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world...wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home."

Richard Platt's Ripples from Walden Pond comes close to painting a portrait of Thoreau. When the two-act script errs, it errs on the side of chronology and a need to account, it seems, for every fact and detail.

The jumpy, episodic first act needs pruning. It wants to honor all of Thoreau's first 28 years. In the process, subjects and short scenes flit about. And the abundance of information makes the act feel longer than it plays. Act two's in much better shape, in part because the scenes are fewer and are much more theatrical.

Thoreau confessed he was a "stuttering, blundering, clod-hopper." Other accounts confirm the description, adding that he was also a loner and, often insensitively, assertive.

Francis Gercke, who plays him at Cygnet, makes these qualities endearing. The ghost of Thoreau appears at a replica of his cabin today. He sees he's not alone and almost retreats. Gercke gradually sheds the ghost's shyness and gangly demeanor. He accepts his chance to sum himself up and, in the end, speaks with unfettered authority. Gercke makes quotations from "Civil Disobedience" and "The Last Days of John Brown" ring with moral force.

Thoughtfully directed by Eric Poppick, Gercke lets Thoreau's moods play over him like the seasons that organize Walden. The feelings ring true and the performance captivates in many ways. But the deliveries become mannered when Gercke persistently runs the end of a sentence into the next. Thoreau wrote "full stop" sentences. He polished each, sometimes for years, to stand on its own.

Thoreau rejected all forms of authority: rules, laws, taxes, even governments. Many say he also rejected the approval of others ("I should suit them better," he wrote, "if I suited myself less"). Gercke has an engaging presence throughout, which is crucial for a one-person show. Suggestions of Thoreau's radical independence from our approval would help complete the portrait.


Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town, playing through April 24.

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Comments

Twister April 17, 2012 @ 9:48 p.m.

Yea, though the playwright stumble and the actor mumble, spreading Throreau amongst the multitudes 'tis a consummation most devoutly to be wished . . . 'Tis better to light a smoky torch than none at all.

Now, what we need is a one-woman play based on Ada Byron Lovelace . . .

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Twister April 17, 2012 @ 9:51 p.m.

Oh, I forgot to lead off with my congratulations on your teaching ability.

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Jeff Smith April 18, 2012 @ 11:04 a.m.

Thanks Twister. But the best thing I did as a teacher was hand out a carefully chosen reading list. The books did the teaching.

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Twister April 26, 2012 @ 3 p.m.

That teaching is best which teaches least. [apologies to whomever said it or wrote the quote (which I plagiarized and bastardized) first]

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nan shartel April 18, 2012 @ 12:18 p.m.

ahaaa Twister...once u upload ur new avatar our Bernoulli numbers will agree

None

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Twister May 3, 2012 @ 9:01 p.m.

My mentor says that Thoreau spent one night in jail and that his aunt bailed him out the next day. Was Thoreau all that he's thorown up to us?

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Jeff Smith May 4, 2012 @ 10:50 a.m.

That's correct. There's even a play, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee called The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail - and they jazz him up to mythical proportions. Also, Walden Pond wasn't five clicks beyond nowhere. It was just one mile from Ralph Waldo and wife Lydian Emerson's house. Many say that Henry David took full advantage of Lydian's excellent cooking - especially on chill winter's eves.

There's "Thoreau" and Thurr-ow - the legend and the person. Best to read Walden, "Civil Disobedience," and the others and thorow the legend back into the pond.

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