Walter Mencken 9 a.m., May 23
Ripples from Walden Pond
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.
More like this:
- Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell — July 25, 2012
- The Pride at Diversionary Theatre — April 14, 2012
- Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts — Feb. 16, 2010
- O'Neill in Bondage — May 10, 2007
- Why do masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation? — July 23, 1998