“It takes a long time for the full beauty of the flat lands to reach a man’s soul. Once there, nor hills, nor sea, nor growing fan leaves of palm shall suffice him. It is like the beauty in the word ‘Indiana.’”
Booth Tarkington wrote that of our state in his 1899 debut novel “The Gentleman From Indiana.” Tarkington was a born and bred Hoosier, and a deep love of Indiana can be felt in much of his work.
Tarkington won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice, a feat accomplished only by him, William Faulkner and John Updike. These wins were for “The Magnificent Ambersons” in 1919 and “Alice Adams” in 1922.
Although Tarkington was a successful playwright, “The Gentleman From Indiana” wasn’t adapted for stage performance until James Still did so in 2006. Still’s adaptation is presented this month by Indiana Festival Theatre.
The play is running in rotating repertory with Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” The two shows, both playing in the Wells-Metz Theatre, use roughly the same cast of student and professional actors.
The town of Plattville, Indiana, doesn’t get many strangers visiting, so the arrival of an East Coast man named John Harkless stirs things up. Harkless has purchased the town newspaper, which has a reputation, a local resident informs him, for being a “poor, poor paper.”
John Harkless shows an ambition that’s rarely seen in Plattville. He believes that he can turn the Herald into an interesting publication, but more importantly, he sets out to invigorate the political minds of Plattville citizens. A local politician, Rodney McCune, attempts to intimidate Harkless into using the Herald to prop him up, but Harkless refuses.
Harkless hires a couple of staff members for the Herald: Xenophon Gibbs (a fellow whose usual occupation is doing “a little of this, a little of that”) and Fisbee (an archaeology professor turned town drunk). They don’t sound like much, but they end up being the best staff Harkless could ask for.
A little more pressing than McCune’s threats are the white caps’ attempts to murder Harkless. The white caps were a network of violent vigilante groups that operated in southern Indiana in the late 19th century.
“The Gentleman From Indiana” is also a touching love story. A spellbinding woman named Helen Sherwood comes to Plattville shortly after Harkless does, but her plans to leave for Europe endanger the love that blossoms between them.
Director Dale McFadden stages “The Gentleman From Indiana” in the round, which has advantages and disadvantages. On the whole, McFadden takes a straightforward approach to telling the story.
The lead is enacted by Zachary Spicer. Spicer’s Harkless is a likeable hero, balancing determination and romanticism with a touch of pragmatism.
Henry Woronicz’s work in the role of Fisbee is quite moving. Fisbee enters drunk and singing at the beginning of the play, seeming like a static character thrown in for comic relief, but he ends up having his own very significant story arc.
Amanda Catania is a charming and adroit Helen Sherwood. It’s the only large female role in the play, but she does end up being much more than a romance object for the protagonist.
As with many stage adaptations of novels, some narration is necessary. Rather than opting for a single narrator, Still makes the shrewd choice of having an ensemble of townspeople relay the offstage action.
“The Gentleman From Indiana” is a comedic drama with an old-fashioned appeal. McFadden’s production breathes life into the stories of rural Indiana.
If you go
WHO: Indiana Festival Theatre.
WHAT: “The Gentleman From Indiana” by James Still, adapted from the novel by Booth Tarkington.
WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre in the Lee Norvelle Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. July 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25; 2 p.m. July 18.
TICKETS: $15-25. Visit theatre.indiana.edu or call 812-855-1103.
Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times.