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.