Exile On Main Street

Sinclair Lewis's small-town satire stumbles onstage

Main Street probably would have languished among the Books I Intend to Read for another, oh, 20 years had Craig Wright's stage adaptation not goaded me into some cramming. I think my timing was off. Having Sinclair Lewis's 1920 novel so fresh in my mind was helpful, but burdensome, too. I fear that while watching this Great American History Theatre play, I was clinging too tightly to my vision of the book, that I was greeting the play like a school kid does a substitute teacher: Mr. Lewis lets us eat Chuckles in class, Mr. Lewis thinks we're smart enough for subtlety.

After all, an adaptation should be allowed to exist on its own terms. It's unreasonable to complain that Wright's two-hour play lacks the nuance, depth, or scope of Lewis's 450-page novel. Hell, it's just a different medium. The play also lacks the plaintive guitar hookfrom "Mainstreet" by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band (#24 in April of '77), and I'm not complaining about that. Still, there's something missing here, something you expect from an acclaimed playwright (Orange Flower Water, Molly's Delicious, plus writing on HBO's Six Feet Under) and a first-rate cast under Ron Peluso's direction.

The story, set during the teens, is a simple and powerful one. Carol Kennicott (Carolyn Pool) is a liberal, bookish idealist who moves from St. Paul to Gopher Prairie (a fictional stand-in for Lewis's native Sauk Center) with her new husband, Dr. Will Kennicott (Brian Goranson). She hasn't married for love, more for want of a better plan, and she soon regrets her impetuosity. She's further disheartened by the town's conservatism, banality, provincialism, and stolidity, and sets out to mold Gopher Prairie into something more beautiful, sophisticated, and just. These high-minded but arrogant and naïve efforts, along with her attempts to shock the stodgy locals, are met with resentment, ridicule, and toxic gossip.

You're jerky, smarmy, and pitiful: Carolyn Pool and Brian Goranson talk sweet in 'Main  Street'
Erik Paulson
You're jerky, smarmy, and pitiful: Carolyn Pool and Brian Goranson talk sweet in 'Main Street'

Wright's adaptation tells the story mainly through Carol and Will's tumultuous marriage. Their relationship is generally played at a boil where the book tends to simmer. Carol chafes at Will's imperiousness and patronization; Will yells or whimpers over Carol's neglect. As a result, he comes off as either jerky, smarmy, or pitiful (it's quite effective, though, when he pleads with Carol, "Can't you like me at all?": That's a line I'll have to remember to use). His admirable qualities--his kindness, his fortitude--are rarely shown, and as a result, Carol's ultimate reconciliation with him seems sudden and inexplicable. Similarly, we are shown little of Carol's grudging but sometimes warm affection for Gopher Prairie. We're told that Carol has "never fit in"--twice, emblematic of the play's weakness for scrawled-out cues. When Carol's extramarital love interest is introduced (an innocent dandy played by the magnetic Josh Foldy), a secondary character (played by Nancy Marvy) tells Carol, "Oh, he'll love you!"

And let me just say a word about "yump." It's Will's word for "yes," also used in the book, where it goes by quite unnoticed among countless examples of the author's dialectal know-how. Here, it's a cute trademark, like a sitcom tag line--Gary Coleman's "Whatchou talkin' 'bout, Willis?" from Different Strokes. Carol affectionately imitates the idiom late in the play, a gesture that's supposed to be loaded with reconciliation but is woefully trite. That's a small thing, but the small stuff adds up, as any rectitudinous townie from God's Country knows. A bit of dialogue about the digestion of onions, tucked away in the book, is here turned into a crude flatulence joke. Every local reference ("It's no Fargo, but...") becomes a punch line.

During one scene, a solo-piano rendition of the spiritual "Deep River" begins to play in the background. The volume swells as Pool's face projects much of the conflicted suffering absent from most of the play. The unsung lyrics seem to underscore Carol's longing for fulfillment, her feeling of being mired in the town's mediocrity. Or maybe she just wanted out of the play--I know I did.

 
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