David Adkins goes for broke in 'Thoreau ...'
STOCKBRIDGE — "I love to talk," Henry David Thoreau says midway through David Adkins' uneven new play, "Thoreau, or, Return to Walden," which opened over the weekend at Berkshire Theatre Festival's Unicorn Theatre.
Talk, he does, for nearly 75 minutes in an, at times, rambling portrait of a man, an individualist, caught in not-so-quiet desperation by the sharp contrasts in a society that is too passive for its own good, especially when it comes to injustices perpetrated by a government, that seems to have lost its way; abandoned the worthy principles upon which it was founded.
Thoreau's anxiety has never been more with him than on the day on which Adkins' play is set — Dec. 2, 1859, the day on which abolitionist John Brown nd his family were hanged at Harper's Ferry. It also is the day on which a Massachusetts court, in compliance with the federal Fugitive Slave Act, has ordered that a free black man be returned to his slave master in Virginia.
This day begins with Thoreau, still naked after a dip in his beloved Walden Pond, standing in the midst of the now-rundown cabin he built for himself and occupied for just over two years. A rooster is crowing nearby and the exhilaration of the cockle-doodle-doo fills Thoreau (a robust go-for-broke performance by Adkins).
"The morning is the most memorable part of the day, the awakening hour," Thoreau says with childlike disocvery.
Thoreau talks about the value of individual labor for its own sake rather than the sake of commerce; the simplicity of nature, especially as it posed against increasingly complex and acquisitive civilization.
"Shall we always obtain more things and not be content with less?" Thoreau asks rhetorically. "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion."
Thoreau has come back to nurture his troubled, disquieted soul. With the obscenity of slavery dragging his once-beloved country toward civil war, Thoreau is deeply concerned about the wayward track the nation is taking and even more about civil obedience as way of life when civil disobedience is needed.
"There are thousands who are opposed to slavery who sit down with their hands in their pockets and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing," Thoreau says contemptuously.
Unjust laws — chief among them the Fugitive Slave Act — exist but the argument in the courts, the legislature, the public, Thoreau says, is not whether the law is right but, rather, whether it is constitutional.
"We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them," Adkins' Thoreau says with a blend of sorrow and anger. "Who can be serene in a country without principle? The remembrance of my country soils my walk. I have lived for the last month with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. ... what I had lost was a country. I am more alone than ever."
And yet, for all his despair, Thoreau is not without hope. "My serenity is ripped but not ruffled," he says. What sustains him is the memory of Walden Pond, the idea of Walden Pond — why he went there in the first place; why he has returned even if only for a night and a day.
Playwright, Adkins' research is impressive but the continuity, especially when it comes to matters of time and tenses, is not always clean. As a result, the play moves in fits and starts as it drifts between engagement and disengagement.
Actor Adkins delivers playwright Adkins' material with a robust combination of childlike purity and the cynicism and the frustration of an idealist trying to reconcile the gap between society and governance as he believes they should be and the way they, in fact, are.
There is more than a touch of the mad man in Adkins' Thoreau. He is the kind of mad man Jack Kerouac describes in "On the Road" as one "who never yawn(s) or say(s) a commonplace thing, but burns ... like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop nd everbody goes 'Awww!'"
What: "Thoreau, or, Return to Walden" by David Adkins. Directed by Eric Hill
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
With: David Adkins
Designers: Michael J. Riha, scenic; David Murin, costumes; Matthew E. Adelson, lighting; J. Hagenbuckle, sound
When: Through July 11. Eves. — 7 Mon.-Thu.; 8 Fri., Sat. Mats. — 2 Sat.
Running time: 1 hour 16 minutes
Where: Unicorn Theatre, 6 East. St., Stockbridge
How: (413) 997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org; in person at Colonial Theatre box office — 111 South St., Pittsfield; Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge
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