Who knew that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Thornton Wilder had an identical twin brother who was stillborn? Perhaps those who’ve made a study of the man best known for Our Town, The Matchmaker and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but not many besides them, I’d guess.
The name of that lost twin is also the title of Matthew Burnett’s play Theophilus North (based on the semiautobiographical novel of the same name by Wilder, and translated into a film 30 years ago with the name Mr. North), now onstage in a Dog Days Theatre production. It’s on one hand an imagining of what that brother’s life might have been, but on another reflective of Thornton’s own journey to becoming a writer.
It starts with Theophilus (Brett Mack), who’s had enough of teaching young boys at camp, leaving his parents behind to see the world. He doesn’t get far before his old jalopy breaks down; in fact, he makes it only to Newport, Rhode Island, where he takes on a number of odd part-time jobs to earn enough money to move on.
That finds him reading to a neglected pregnant wife who’s confined to her home (Alex Pelletier), working on French verbs and adolescence with the brother (Dylan Crow) of a precocious young girl (Ally Farzetta), spending time with an aging philosopher (Don Walker) and some Newport servants (Roxanne Fay and Andrew Bosworth) and even preventing the elopement of a rebellious heiress (Farzetta again). The nature of the novel being episodic, the first half of Burnett’s play can at times feel aimless; it has charm, and Mack is engaging, but we’re not sure where it’s heading.
That becomes clearer, and more involving, in Act II, where the storylines for the individual characters develop and we become attached to the milieu they live in. Along the way, director Laura Braza and her cast successfully portray not only memorable people but different Newport locales and buildings, that aging car and other inanimate objects, with a minimum of props or setting.
Burnett also succeeds in capturing Wilder’s tone—a very human one that is forgiving of most faults and understanding of foibles. There’s no high drama in Theophilus North, and not really any laugh-out-loud comedy, either. It’s just a gentle, low-key look at how the citizens of one town, circa 1926, impacted a young, budding writer and vice versa.
Theophilus North continues through July 28 in the Cook Theatre; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org/Conservatory.