It is always valuable to remember the women behind the famous men, the women whose revolutionary work and ideas preceded those whose names made it to the history books. It's also helpful to be reminded of controversy in context. And so it is with Fanny and Walt, a new play by Jewel Seehaus-Fisher (running through July 1 at Blue Heron Arts Center), which portrays a unique friendship between a pre-Civil War feminist and a groundbreaking poet.
The Fanny of the title is to Fanny Fern (Dee Pelletier), America's first female newspaper columnist, a novelist, and an early feminist, and the Walt is Whitman (Charles Geyer), whose controversial Leaves of Grass Fern daringly championed in her column. At times the actors, particularly those in the title roles, play their characters rather too 21st century for their own mid-19th, at times clouding the startling iconoclasm of Fanny and Walt as historical figures. The play is also laced with a few amateurish turns, such as characters conveniently overhearing each other. Over all, though, Fanny and Walt moves swiftly and with suspense, thanks to upbeat direction by Julia Murphy, engagingly chronicling a fascinating and turbulent liaison from inception to termination.
The play opens with Fanny in bed with a man; we wonder if it may be Walt, but in fact it is her newlywed (and third) husband, Gemmy. Gemmy has good reason to recall the wedding night as one of the least happy of their marriage, for the relationship dynamic is established here for perpetuity, and it does not favor the man. In a quickly unfolding chain of events, Fanny challenges Gemmy to another round of love-making; he demurs. She, ravenously hungry, announces she will brave the snowy night, alone if necessary, in search of food. Lacking suitable clothing (all she has is her wedding dress), she puts on his tux; seeing that she is serious in her quest to go out, he helps her dress. Fanny then heads out into the night where she meets, dining with her literary friend Samuel Wells (played by Alan Semok), the young Walt Whitman.
As Fanny and Walt talk, a simpatico connection is swiftly forged. Though the two know each other by reputation, and do seem to be of one mind, something about the bond seems a bit forced--perhaps because it is punctuated by Whitman's sitting with his leg up on the table. This scene gives Whitman a chance to strut his stuff, and to remind the audience that--in his time as in our own--his celebration of homoeroticism, among other themes, makes his life and work the subject of scandal.
As the action progresses, proprietary anachronisms move into the background as an uneasy friendship triangle unfolds. Fanny and Walt mutually admire, she agrees to pay for the second edition of his book, and discord follows, most immediately in the form of Gemmy's jealousy. To worsen matters, it becomes clear that Whitman cannot return his debts, and that at times he can be a charlatan and a bore. Fanny and Walt's relationship reaches a climax, literally and figuratively, with subsequent typical Victorian doubts about paternity of an unborn child. Not to anyone's surprise, the play ends on a note of estrangement.
By far the most charming and impressive element of the play is the relationship between Fanny and Walt. It's not one of adultress and paramour. Instead, it's that of a woman who actually does, in the tired phrase, break all the rules--of writing, earning, marrying, and dressing--and a sexually ambiguous man. Walt alternates between being surprisingly forthright with his own same-sex desires, and trying to convince himself of his attraction to Fanny. He reads her a lusty poem he says he wrote for her, but admits that it is not about her. Yet his romantic feelings for her are not entirely disingenuous. While it may be handy for him to alleviate his money-borrowing guilt by fooling himself into believing he is attracted to her, there is something there.
The key is, perhaps, Fanny's clothes. She is in her husband's attire when she and Walt first meet, and in their pre-consummation scene. She is not his heterosexual intrigue; she is his sugar-daddy, in all her patronal, established-writer, shirttails splendor. Before they kiss, he says, "In the morning, we'll be two men." "No," she corrects him, "a man and a woman," but it is clear what is fixed in his mind. This intricate--indeed, by today's standards, polymorphously perverse--unfolding of events is Seehaus-Fisher at her most skilled, shored up by Murphy's innovative direction of the characters.
There are some fine performances in the play, particularly as the characters warm up. Pelletier's Fanny is wonderfully energetic, and what seems out-of-place here would be to her credit to other roles. Her lines are forceful: When she bursts out bitterly to Gemmy, "You always leave me--I wish you'd just stay," we see her mind and passion in action. Geyer as Walt is equally robust, and plays Whitman's tiresomeness without worrying about the audience (as well he shouldn't). Tom Hammond as the ineffectual Gemmy garners our sympathy, but sometimes drags the pace; Gina Ojile as Gemmy's shrewish sister could have been more rounded. Sterling in a small role is Semok as Samuel Wells. His utter lack of mugging in his stiff upper-lip and immaculate Victorian get-up is integral in establishing the play's pre-Civil War credibility.
The large brick columns limiting the playing space and wooden raft-like floor make a somewhat confusing set, but set and lighting designer Roman J. Tatarowicz does well using spare items to evoke an overall posh tone. Ditto regarding Mary A. Wong's costumes, which fare better on the men than on the women.
On the whole, Fanny and Walt is a thought-provoking foray into an unusual friendship between groundbreaking figures, a relationship worthy of remembering--and dramatizing.