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Theater Review

Dealing With the Devil Is Never Easy

'Tom Walker,' at SCR, touches on the corrupt soul of colonial America, but the morality tale has trouble finding itself.

April 30, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Playwright John Strand's "Tom Walker," now in its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory, takes the Washington Irving tale "The Devil and Tom Walker" and goes its own happy-ending way with it.

How it arrives there is a matter of moderate cleverness and a considerable ear for heightened period language.

Nonetheless, it's a peculiar experience. Revised since its first full production earlier this year at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, Strand's play has a first act that grinds on, its bitter humor unvarying yet rather mild. But Act 2 improves on Act 1, and not just because it's lighter.

We're introduced to the most indolent man in 1727 Massachusetts by our narrator, Cora (Margaret Laurena Kemp), who describes herself as one of 12 daughters of Satan himself. "Lies and legends," she intones, "as weeds do grow . . . this new land was never no paradise." When greed's the official language of a country in the making, trouble follows.

Tom Walker (Simon Billig) is a sometime fiddler and full-time loser, whose grim marriage to harridan Rose (Colette Kilroy) is enough to send anyone to the devil. The devil obliges: In the woods one evening, Tom meets a man calling himself Lucius (Wendell Wright). He claims to be Lucifer, and soon enough Tom has struck a Faustian bargain--wealth in exchange for his soul.

Tom becomes a moneylender, harsh and unforgiving. A widow named Baine (Martha Hackett) comes to him for a loan. She has no collateral but her body. A deal is struck, yet Tom feels something more than spite and lust regarding this arrangement. The forces of good, headed by God-fearing Widow Baine, battle the forces of evil. Will Tom reclaim his soul, while locating the spine he never knew he had?

That's the second-act question, which Strand handles engagingly. The playwright wasn't given much to go on by Washington Irving's short, sour morality folk tale. Tom is a stick figure of unalloyed greed, and though Strand attempts to flesh him out some, he's still pretty thin company.

The problem is compounded by Billig's performance in the title role, a sore spot in director Kyle Donnelly's otherwise well-cast staging. Billig's Tom is a one-note, pop-eyed, predictably sneering creation. He plays straight into the obvious venalities at hand, tiringly.

But everyone else is good. Wright, in his official SCR premiere, makes for a fine, authoritative, somewhat rueful Lucius, and there's an unexpectedly powerful encounter between him and daughter Cora, soulfully embodied by Kemp.

*

Kilroy's Rose does what Billig's Tom doesn't: She plays against the grain just enough to bring out some surprising moments, especially in her Act 2 asylum scene. Hackett's Widow Baine is the essence of piety without being the essence of obnoxiousness, and J. Fred Shiffman contributes some enjoyable supporting turns, particularly as Bob Jenkin, Tom's unintelligible ale-house drinking buddy.

The SCR second stage affords scenic designer John McDermott only so much space to create an environment for "Tom Walker," but it's a clever one: a small-scale barn-like wall, with sliding panels. In front of it hangs a series of menacing ropes, raised and lowered to suggest, among other things, trees in the swampy forest wherein Tom meets the devil.

The play is a variation on a theme favored by SCR: the settling of America, and its corrupt, unsettled soul. The territory was explored by Howard Korder's "The Hollow Lands," to mixed results. "Tom Walker" is more internally contradictory; its comic and dramatic strands don't so much intertwine as dangle in proximity, like the ropes above the stage. Yet when Strand shifts his focus at the midpoint to, among others, Lucius and his travails, "Tom Walker" begins finding itself.

If the playwright can figure out a way to make the titular loser more compellingly and wittily thick-headed early on, then the character--and his play--will really have someplace to go.

* "Tom Walker," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays through Fridays, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Ends May 27. $26-$47. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours.

Simon Billig: Tom Walker

Colette Kilroy: Rose Walker

Martha Hackett: Widow Baine

Margaret Laurena Kemp: Cora

Wendell Wright: Lucius

J. Fred Shiffman: Bob Jenkin

Written by John Strand. Directed by Kyle Donnelly. Scenic design by John McDermott. Costume design by Lindsay W. Davis. Lighting design by Nancy Shertler. Original music and sound design by Donald DiNicola. Production manager Jeff Gifford. Stage manager Andy Tighe.

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