by LIZ BYRON
At first glance, Leaves might seem like a confusing mishmash that could go very wrong. Finding its inspiration in the poetry of American great Walt Whitman, and borrowing large swaths of his work, the people of Savage Umbrella have created a play that is part drama, part music, part poetry, moving back and forth between Whitman’s words and an original script. When it first started with a lone character declaiming Whitman’s work, I panicked — a whole two hours of poetry!? And when the poetry gave way to a song (the lyrics of which were mostly direct quotes of Whitman’s poems), I panicked a little more — a whole two hours of poetry set to music!? But the song gave way to a spoken scene between two characters, and by intermission, I was completely won over by the combination of dialogue, poetry, and song. Completely.
The program for the play explains that “this show is about America”, and that the company intends it to be “sweet, simple, and sincere.” That’s pretty darn accurate, actually. Leaves tells the story of two siblings mourning the loss of the grandfather who raised them, and trying to figure out how to sort out their own lives. Older brother Sam (Paul Rutledge) is an army vet who, after returning from deployment to Afghanistan, finds that folks are quick to thank him for his service, but not so quick to offer him a job. He struggles to speak of his experiences and their impact on his psyche with his wife Ashley (Heidi Jedlicka Halvarson), who took care of their children while he was away, and now can’t find a way to explain to him why she feels so trapped in her small-town existence. Meanwhile, Sam’s sister Mabel (Hannah K. Holman) has spent her adult life working in a small-town diner, and is scared to take a leap into the unknown — if she could even figure out where she wants to leap to; a question which may be answered by Bek (Laura Leffler-McCabe), a big-city woman who is travelling through small towns to research for her blog. The four find their lives soon intertwined with that of Whit (Russ Dugger), a poetry-spouting stranger who sleeps outdoors with only Ulysses (his ukelele) to keep him company, as he explains he is wandering across the country on foot following an eagle whose destiny is, he believes, tied to his own.
The characters’ stories progress in a simple and yet compelling way. These aren’t big, dramatic events, but they are normal, human ones that are easy to relate to. And these characters surely are normal and human — saying the wrong thing, blurting things out after a few beers, scared to say anything and swallowing their own words, making jokes to smooth over awkward situations, changing the subject abruptly, and sometimes unable to find any words at all. These characters feel very quickly like friends, and you want to know what will happen to them, and hope desperately that what happens will be good.
If there is one enigma, it is Whit. Is he supposed to be Walt Whitman himself, transported in time and place? Is he a normal man, consciously taking inspiration from Whitman, and quoting him out of appreciation? Is the character deliberately quoting Whitman, or do the other characters hear his words as original? This mystery might be maddening, and potentially unbearable, if the others accepted him at face value. But when Whit wanders off the stage, barefooted and bearded, ukelele in hand, someone comments, “Man, that guy is awesome, but he’s so weird!” and I breathed a sigh of relief. That’s exactly how I would react to such a person, I think.
Although I loved this play, I will warrant that it isn’t perfect. It’s a low-cost production, and it shows sometimes, but this doesn’t detract from the story.. it’s just that there’s no doubt that you’re not exactly at the Guthrie. The actors hit a few flat notes, and on occasion fail to really nail the high notes. But the music (written by Candace Bilyk, Ben Mattson, Emily Dussault with Russ Dugger and Amber Davis) is lovely, and well-played by Ted Moore on the guitar and David Sutton on the viola. The set (by Carl Atiya Swanson and Mason Mahoney) is spartan but easily adapted to depict different places. The actors are well-cast, and give good performances — Laura Leffler-McCabe‘s Bek is particularly strong; at first it seemed that she was fumbling lines, but it soon became apparent that this is how her character speaks. You know, that’s how real people speak — they pause, they change their minds mid-sentence, they cringe when they realise they’ve just said something stupid.
In sum, I strongly urge you to give Leaves a try. Let yourself love these characters; listen openly to the poetry and marvel at how something written so long ago still resonates so strongly; consider your role in the world, in your relationships, and in the natural world. And while you’re there, be sure to check out the cool interactive displays in the lobby of The Playwrights’ Center.
Leaves by Laura Leffler-McCabe and Tanner Curl, presented by Savage Umbrella. At The Playwrights Center, Minneapolis, November 8-23, 2013. Tickets $12-20 sliding scale, with no one turned away, at www.savageumbrella.org
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