Lindsay Christians, 77 Square
Photographer Walker Evans (Josh Aaron McCabe) and writer Shirley Hughes (Molly Rhode) make their way toward Kansas during the Depression in "A Thousand Words." Forward Theater premiered the play in Promenade Hall.
Photo by Nick Berard
Squeezed together in a jostling train car, the photographer turns to the writer.
What do you see?, he asks.
She pauses, then weaves a fantastic picture of a woman sitting nearby, with "raven black hair" and "ruby silk ... woven by gypsies."
Try again, he tells her. Don't judge. Just describe.
How an artist changes the people around him, whether it's with a photograph, a compliment or a famous legacy, is at the core of Gwendolyn Rice's insightful play "A Thousand Words," produced by Forward Theater Co. through Sunday, Feb. 5.
Walker Evans' famous Depression-era photos (none of which we ever see) transform the lives of the people around them. They're high art to some, family heirlooms to others.
The play moves back and forth in time, between the 1930s and the present day.
Evans and Shirley Hughes, a young writer with literary ambitions, are strapped for money when they take an assignment to "put a happy face on propaganda for the Farm Security Administration." The trip takes them to Kansas: poor families, big skies and never-ending dust.
Back in the present, Sally Quinn leaves her office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to purchase quilts from a group of elderly ladies in Garden City, Kansas.
A local marketing exec, Andrea, keeps a close eye on the deal, warning Sally not to "confuse goodwill with gullibility." By dramatic coincidence, Andrea also has a connection to recently discovered photographs taken by Walker Evans, photos the Met is trying to acquire.
Whether he's onstage or off, the play belongs to Walker, played by Josh McCabe (a UW-Madison MFA alum).
McCabe stops short of swagger, but he's clearly the most confident voice in the play, a watcher of people in their unguarded moments. Affection simmers between Walker and Shirley, an open question with a surprising resolution.
As Shirley, Molly Rhode looks straight out of a classic Hollywood film, like the wholesome, Midwestern girl Jean Harlow used to be.
But Rhode spends much of the play in a pout. She sighs with exasperation, moans about "desperate, hopeless" Kansas and actively hampers Walker's journalistic style. Shirley seems a foil for Walker's optimism, but this frequently makes her irritating.
Back in present-day Kansas, Georgina McKee nearly steals the show as Andrea, whose "Midwestern nice" tone barely conceals a prickly defensiveness. She's a fine match for Sarah Day's determined, slightly idealistic Sally.
The story veers in confusing directions, often surrounding Sally's supervisor at the Met, Brian. T. Stacy Hicks tosses off witty comments, but his character seems superfluous, a sounding board for Sally to spout off about the Value of Outsider Art.
There are hiccups in the script that jolt us out of the drama, as when Andrea retorts that they "get USA Today" in Kansas or Sally waxes on about isolation and folk art. (The internet goes to Garden City, too.)
And designer Nate Stuber's set of storage boxes is too blank — it looks like he had a $10 budget and raided a high school storage closet. Brief impressionistic images from lighting designer Jason Fassl help, but the effect is thrown-together.
Direction by artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray is sensitive and subtle. She pinpoints small, telling moments — Shirley's self-consciousness, Sally's minor addiction to caffeine, Walker's simultaneous need to be noticed and blend in.
In "A Thousand Words," playwright Rice knows that it's the stories behind the images, whether real or imagined, that fascinate us. In this often charming new play, the characters invite us to look again, reconsider, and perhaps discover something new.
Posted on 1/22/12