Plan-B Theatre: Wallace

Posted March 16, 2010 in
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Carleton Bluford as Wallace Thurman

Plan-B Theatre Company
Rose Wagner Theater
March 4-14, 2010

Wallace is the story of two men whose lives run aground in Salt Lake City. Wallace Thurman is a young, gay, African-American writer who planted his roots in the dried-up lake bed of Salt Lake City before setting out for New York City where he became one of the prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Avant-Garde. The second is Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer who survived the brutal plains of Saskatchewan and eventually formed a new Eden here in the City of Saints with his wife. In life their paths never crossed, in the minimalist set in the Plan-B theater they only once acknowledge each other, but their lives, at some point, share a city, a passion for writing, and a name: Wallace.  

Wallace is a single play comprised of the two solo one-act plays FIRE, adapted Jennifer Nii and WHERE I COME FROM, adapted by Debora Teedy.  Both plays are adapted exclusively from the memoirs of Thurman and Stegner and are interwoven together under the direction of Jerry Rapier. The minimal set, consisting of a table and a few chairs, allows each actor’s physical presence to hold commanding sway during the 85 minute dual-monologue.  Carleton Bluford, a vivacious young actor, convincingly portrays Wallace Thurman and Richard Scharine embodies the reverent austerity and unyielding humor that defines Wallace Stegner’s prose. Both actors are in worlds apart, never addressing each other except to fill in for lines spoken by other characters.  This distance allows the thematic narrative of their lives to fill in the blanks where the tangible similarities are silent.

In every facet Wallace is a study in contrasts that extend beyond the obvious difference is age, race and sexuality. Stegener begins his monologue sitting calmly at a table addressing the audience that the rumors may be true, he may or may not be starting his autobiography. The subdued and coy Stegner is violently interrupted by Thurman as he bursts from the shadows, leaps up on the table and launches into the first line of his autobiography, “Fire!/Fiiire, gonna buuurrn my soul!” There is no question about Thurman’s intentions, he has a life-story that demands telling—so much that he can barely contain his enthusiasm to tell it. The way the two actors use the limited space given to them point to the obvious distinctions between their personalities. The table and chairs serve as apt metaphors for the venerable Stegner, rarely gets up from behind the table as he reads from “The Colt” and collected short stories or dispensing wisdom and anecdotes like a master storyteller. Thurman on the other hand, plays the stage and props like his own personal jungle gym. His monologues find him frantically pacing the stage, sitting at awkward angles on tops of chairs, shouting his lines from tabletop. Even when Thurman is dying Bluford still wrings every last drop of life that he can from the character, refusing to let him fade into obscurity the way he has in the history of this city.

There is one intersection, however, that both of their lives pass through: Salt Lake City. Stegner and Thurman spent their childhoods in vastly different ways. Stegner grew up on the plains of Saskatchewan where he cultivated his “life of the senses” in a small rural community. This keen observation of what he sees and feels will later contribute to his tactile descriptions of life in the west. Thurman on the other hand, suffered from Influenza and heart problems as a child and spent most of his childhood indoors and alone. Both writers’ “life of the mind” began in Salt Lake City. Thurman was born here and spent most of his childhood reading. His interests ranged from Plato to Shakespeare, Flaubert to Baudelaire, he wrote his first novel at age 10. Stegner, upon his move to Salt Lake City, discovered the library and as a teenager and swallowed up its vast selection. During their adolescence Stegner attended East High School and Thurman West, both attended the University of Utah for a time. Both writers have SLC to thank for awakening their intellectual thirst for knowledge, but thematically the great salt palace represents two very different things.

Thurman regarded Salt Lake as a genesis for his love of learning and argues that he wouldn’t have achieved what he did without it. Growing up sickly and African-American in Salt Lake City afforded him ample opportunity to be alone with his thoughts. When he left Utah, for California, and ultimately New York, he saw it as a chance to break out of the Mormon Zion and establish a paradise for himself among the uber-hip, bohemian literati inhabiting his “Nigeratti Manner” in Harlem. He claims for himself, “This is the Place!” Stegner, on the other hand, saw his move into civilization as a chance to start a new garden of Eden, a locus of his own making, within an already established paradise. Coming out of his roughshod childhood he states, “we can make deserts, and we have” out of the paradises we destroy. He admires how the Mormon pioneers took an infertile valley and made a thriving city with perfectly organized city blocks. He met his wife here and they lived blissfully among the Latter-Day Saints.

Two influential writers sharing this little oasis in the desert at different times is hardly miraculous. The point that Wallace brings up is not the tangential relationship between the writers living in Salt Lake City, but how this city shaped them in both their writing and their personal lives. As Thurman succumbs to tuberculosis he revisits Salt Lake City one last time, hoping the mountain air will do him good. It doesn’t. His story ends in Salt Lake around the time that Stegner’s begins. As Thurman’s young life flickers out at the end of the play, Thurman and Stegner share a glance, a metaphysical union realized by their shared experiences in this city. They realize that their lives, however tragic or triumphant, started here. We should take pride in that.

Carleton Bluford as Wallace Thurman  Richard Scharine as Wallace Stegner