In 1856, Fanny Fern was the highest-paid journalist in America, newly divorced (scandalous!) and newly remarried to literary editor James "Jemmy" Parton, and an independently wealthy, free-thinking woman living successfully in a man's world on her own terms. Walt Whitman, espousing an open affection between men, was just about to publish his first edition of Leaves of Grass when he and Fern met. Attracted to each other's literary sensibilities, they embarked on a friendship that eventually led to a brief affair that would ruin their relationship and severely strain Fern's marriage to Parton.
Jewel Seehaus-Fisher has dramatized these events in an odd little work called simply Fanny and Walt. The simplicity of the title reflects the simplicity that is endemic to Fisher's interesting but somewhat thin script. She writes with elegance, and a lot of information is presented in a crisp, modern shorthand. But the individual scenes feel unfinished, each ending abruptly and in mid-thought, almost in mid-sentence. Subsequently, the evening did not coalesce into a satisfying, organic whole, leaving elusive impressions rather than a flesh-and-blood rendering of the people, places, and times depicted. And that's a pity, because the characters themselves are fascinating, and the restrictive, straight-laced atmosphere of the world they inhabit is rich with the potential for riveting drama.
Julia Murphy's direction, while unable to completely flesh out Fisher's script, was still quite polished, and the evening was never less than entertaining. The performances, particularly, were all top-notch. Dee Pelletier made a charmingly brusque Fanny; as Walt, Charles Geyer made obnoxious, self-involved male behavior almost understandable. Tom Hammond portrayed Jemmy's wounded pride and growing mistrust with admirable restraint; Alan Semok, looking like a period daguerreotype come to life, was properly blustery as Whitman's editor and publisher; and Gina Ojile, as Jemmy's sister Mary, was hilariously serious, the epitome of feminine decorum and a real pain in the ass, to boot.
Murphy did not stint on the physical production either, which was first-class. Roman Tatarowicz's simply beautiful sets and lighting, along with Mary Wong's elegant costumes, effortlessly brought the gaslit world of the mid-nineteenth century back to life with a romantic, heady nostalgia.
Already a first-place winner in the Southwest Festival of Plays
(Women's Division), Fanny and Walt has been given its New
York premiere with this production. While there is no question
that it is a thoroughly professional work, and has been given
an enviably professional production, there still seems to be something
missing. On the surface it is a smooth example of the well-made
play -everything that should be there is there and firmly in place.
But too often it seems content to bask in the glow of its glossy
surface, only rarely digging deeply enough to find the fiery,
multi-textured soul that must be exposed if the work is to live
up to its intriguing, complicated characters and their compelling,
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita