Giorgio Litt and Virginia Kull in Theophilus North
(© Theresa Squire)
Giorgio Litt and Virginia Kull in Theophilus North
(© Theresa Squire)
In the theater, movie, and television worlds, the words "based on" have long since become worrisome, because they're dispatched to cover a multitude of sins. The same can be said of Matthew Burnett's Theophilus North, which opens the Keen Company's 2006-2007 season. This new work, "based on the novel by Thornton Wilder," is less an adaptation of his 1973 book than a reorientation -- one that is both untrue not only to the novel but to the life-long convictions by which the Pulitzer-Prize winning author lived. Yet in several ways, Burnett's play has served director Carl Forsman as the basis of a beautiful and intelligent production that may have many audience members, especially those unfamiliar with Wilder's novel, under its spell.

In the novel -- a self-proclaimed autobiographical exercise published when Wilder was 76 -- it's the summer of 1926. The title character arrives in Newport, Rhode Island after quitting his teaching position at a New Jersey preparatory institution. (Wilder taught at Lawrenceville Prep for a couple years.) Uncertain about what he wants to do with the rest of his life, North fast becomes assured about how he wants to spend his time in the rich and varied community where the jalopy that got him there broke down.

Accepting positions as a tennis coach, French mentor, and a reader, he also takes on a series of problems that a number of locals face. He instinctively knows how to find agreeable solutions for those troubled by, among other predicaments, family pressures, anti-social behavior, and ill-advised romantic associations. He's confident he can achieve his ends by ingenious planning, and, if necessary, by hook or crook. In short, Theophilus North is a manifestation of that literary staple, The Unstoppable Life Force. Absolute conviction about its existence is something the irrepressible Wilder consistently promoted in his work.

In transferring Theophilus to the stage, Burnett has apparently decided that the young man's self-possession is fine on the printed page but undramatic when catapulted into three dimensions. His solution is to strip Theophilus of his lovable -- and, as Wilder has it, often funny -- sangfroid. Burnett's hero now has a dramatic arc that follows his progression from aimless wanderer towards young man beginning to have glimmers of what he'll do once he completes his Newport duties. That solution is something he comes upon at the very end of his stay -- and it is actually Burnett's finest Wilder-like moment.

Burnett and Forsman have certainly gotten the look of the production right. Beowulf Boritt's set is minimal and a commendable bow to the Wilder of Our Town. It features a stationery bicycle (for Theophilus), a wooden riser, a couple of chairs, a bench, and a backdrop of clouds in a blue sky. Hewing to Wilder's notion of theater retaining a reminder that it's theater, Burnett has also structured the piece so that a seven-actor troupe portray all the myriad characters who populate Wilder's boisterous book.

Six of the performers accessorizing and re-accessorizing the basic period costumes that Theresa Squires has assembled are Margaret Daly, Joe Delafield, Brian Hutchison, Virginia Kull, Geddeth Smith, and Regan Thompson. Not only do they appear as the Newport citizens among whom Theophilus does his immeasurably helpful thing, but they also speak as sections of the town, a park, and a lighthouse, to name only a few. To a man and woman, they acquit their assignments with a mixture of Wilderesque sobriety and esprit. The late author would undoubtedly have tipped his boater to them.

Wilder would also have liked the scholarly aspect of Giorgio Litt, who plays Theophilus, whom Wilder based not only on himself but on the fantasy of a twin brother who died at birth. (The twin was to have been called Theophilus; moreover, it's probably no coincidence that North is an anagram of Thorn, further giving rise to the work's autobiographical nature.) The round-faced, bespectacled, and earnest Litt couldn't be better at the sometimes tentative behavior Burnett and Forsman ask of him. The only problem -- and it isn't the hard-working Litt's -- is that that person isn't Thornton Wilder's Theophilus North.