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Walt Whitman’s secret was that he was a gay man in the late 19th century U.S., where The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name was as great a taboo as it was in Oscar Wilde’s England. That’s the assertion of Sean O’Leary’s theatrical adaptation of George Fetherling’s novel, getting its world premiere from the frank theatre company at Presentation House.
That Whitman was gay isn’t much of a revelation. The play chooses to focus on how Walt’s repression of his own sexuality potentially damages another man, Horace, who idolizes him and devotes his life to collecting Whitman’s papers, promoting his work and caring for the invalid poet who lies dying in his bed.
The play’s two other characters are Anne, who loves Horace and appears to know all of Whitman’s poetry by heart, and Pete, the love of Walt’s life from decades earlier, who haunts Walt’s dreams and appears in person to Anne in the play’s frame, after the deaths of both Walt and Horace.
This is a play that I wanted very much to like, a serious study of a fascinating author. But it demands a lot from its audience without giving us much dramatic incentive to enter into its world. Jack Paterson’s production also has mixed success in that regard. Since this is its first production and a worthy project, I offer the following in the spirit of dramaturgical advice.
The script’s first strange choice is to organize the action around a sick and aged Whitman who spends almost the entire play in his bed. Michelle Allard’s striking all-white set is devoid of all other furniture except the bed at centre stage. It’s an ironic image because so much of the play talks about sex but no one ever has it.
It’s also a risky dramatic choice because Whitman, a larger than life dynamic man famed for the energy of his verse (“I sing the body electric!”), is here drained of all that energy and dynamism. “I’ve never been ‘slightly’ anything in my life!” he says near the beginning. Yet Tom Pickett, who plays Walt, himself a powerful, dynamic actor, is forced to lie static for most of the play, shuffle slowly when he gets out of bed, and speak with the quiet voice of a sick man. The play’s Whitman also keeps the world at bay through his own constant irony, and Pickett has given the character a kind of sing-song delivery from which he breaks only infrequently. So Walt Whitman, the ostensible centre of the play, never seems fully real or fully rendered for us.
Instead of bringing Walt fully alive, the play makes Horace (Conrad Belau) its thematic emblem. Yet he is, in many ways, the story’s dullest character. And the climax of his plotline—his finally committing to the real love of his life—involves an offstage character we never meet.
The two most dynamic characters and performances are Anne (Adele Noronha) and Pete (Kamyar Pazandeh). Pete was an uneducated hustler when Walt met him, and you can easily see why Walt would have been attracted. Pazandeh has a beautiful voice and a sexy presence. What’s curious is that O’Leary never has the two lovers meet in real time. Walt only ever conjures Pete in his mind, so once again the play distances us from any visceral sense of romantic or sexual passion.
Noronha also has wonderful presence, and she looks great in costume designer Carmen Allatore’s dresses. It’s hard to understand why this beautiful, intelligent, competent woman is so keen for dull Horace. She actually spends most of her time in the play talking with Walt about his work.
And that’s another thing that left me frustrated. The discussions of Whitman’s poetry, especially his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, are extremely specific, even to the point that Walt and Anne argue over minor revisions he made between various editions of the poem. I have a PhD in English and have studied Whitman, yet many of these references escaped me. There’s a load of information about Whitman and his poetry on the walls of the lobby, but it’s not organized or presented in a way that guarantees that anyone will have read and digested it before the play begins. It would be more direct and efficient to include a page in the program—part of the Wikipedia entry, say—about Whitman’s biography and Leaves of Grass.
Finally, I am of two minds about director Paterson’s highly stylized scene changes, in which the actors essentially dance (sometimes with the bed, which glides and swivels on wheels) in Itai Erdal’s low light to Dorothy Dittrich’s slow piano music.
These are lovely interludes but they sometimes interrupt whatever momentum the scenes have gathered, and further slow down what is already a long, repetitive play, which I think should be cut by a good half hour.