ALVIN STRAIGHT'S QUARTER hour of celebrity came near the end of his otherwise ordinary life. When the Iowa farmer heard his older brother was ailing 250 miles away in Wisconsin, Straight decided to pay a visit. But how to get there? The septuagenarian's driver's license had been revoked due to poor eyesight, he feared flying, and he refused to be driven by anyone other than himself. He did have a John Deere riding mower, however, and at a top speed of 5 miles per hour, Straight embarked on a brazenly bull-headed 41-day journey that transformed him from plain good people into heartland folk hero.
Perusing the New York Times one day during the fall of 1994, Dan Hurlin spotted a photo of Straight puttering along the grassy shoulder of an Iowa highway and gambled that this strange-but-true story would make a good opera. The Manhattan-based performer, acclaimed for solo shows in which he's played as many as 50 characters at a time, admittedly knew near nothing about opera, but he reckoned Straight's adventure was too epic for words alone. Over the next three years Hurlin and composer Dan Moses Schreier shaped the allegory of a man going slow in a fast world into The Shoulder, an original libretto with a score for voice and strings.
Straight died last summer, and his funeral procession featured a riderless lawnmower. Yet Hurlin had already chosen not to meet the man in order to avoid an overly biographical slant. Instead, Straight's life-defining moment evolved into a conduit to express Hurlin's own burgeoning concerns about the march of time. "When people ask me what this piece is about I say my 40th birthday," the artist explains in a phone interview from New York. "It was a traumatic year. I lost friends to AIDS. I began to feel like everything after 40 was just gravy. Time is a big element in this piece and there's always a sense of loss, but not regret."
Hurlin, an affable avant-garde answer to Jimmy Stewart, has proven himself equal to Straight's tale in his previous work; flash-in-the-pan glory and dashed dreams mark the inhabitants of Hurlin's iconography, whether he's recounting the true story of Canada's nationally adored yet privately abused Dionne quintuplets or documenting the rise and fall of a newspaper baron. Hurlin researches with uncommon depth, in this case tracing the farmer's path by car along Iowa's Route 18. "Sometimes I went 5 miles an hour to feel what it was like," Hurlin recalls. "It was both frustrating and infuriating, but also meditative."
During his travels, Hurlin viewed the Grotto of Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, where Straight camped out to await a Social Security check. "The grotto is a city block long, and was built by this priest in the 1950s," Hurlin says. "And it's filled with Howard Finster-type devotional shrines. The Shoulder is all about the un-self-conscious nature of such things. The priest would say the grotto is just something he thought of, and so would [Straight] about his journey. He didn't think it was remarkable."
In The Shoulder, the John Deere cowboy never reaches his true destination, but as Hurlin observes, there is still a meaningful resolution. "It's like Xeno's paradox," he says. "When you're going from point A to point B, there's a halfway point, and then another, and another. You never actually arrive."
Like all good American folklore, the lawnmower man simply becomes part of the landscape.
The Shoulder plays January 22-24 at 8 p.m. at the Southern Theater; call 375-7622.