Sometimes things just go right. At last Saturday afternoon's performance of Nature at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, a flock of geese flew in formation overhead as 19th century choral music opened the proceedings. In another passage, the primary players stood away from the audience across a grassy field: When the narration spoke of a cooling breeze, nature complied. It was as though the natural world had taken notice of this homage to its virtues and hit its cues perfectly in gratitude.
Of course we all know Mother Nature can be a bitch as well, though it would be a fit of particularly bad temperament to ruin this new work. Telling the story of the friendship between intellectual powerhouse Ralph Waldo Emerson and brilliant crank Henry David Thoreau, Nature summons the sensibility of another time to relay commentary that presages our own (no great surprise—our era doesn't come out smelling like roses).
At the outset, after subdued spiritual music by secondary players, we meet Emerson (Tyson Forbes) and Thoreau (Samuel Elmore) surreptitiously slapping and kicking one another while being led off to prayers. It's an apt note that serves to diffuse any too-strong sense of formality for what's to come, because, slowly but surely, things become very heavy indeed.
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As an audience member, you're led at a walking pace from one tableau to another. First you're listening to Emerson briefly orate, then you're watching a bromance from across that field. You eventually end up in Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond, and then finally in Emerson's home. Writer Andrew Schelling tells the story with a great deal of economy, insight, and historical veracity.
Throughout the story there's the sense that Emerson, elder in age, enjoyed a role as the more fabulous of the two—when Thoreau offers him a drink from his canteen, he drains it without a second thought. In the next moment, though, the two rhapsodize about nature: Thoreau via his daily perambulations, Emerson through the mystical idea of cosmic unity that overcomes him when he's away from the machinations of civilization.
It was the question of civilization's advantages and depredations, of course, that fascinated both men (and led to their eventual falling out). Thoreau, a bellicose grump (Elmore stalks through grass and garden in a state of perpetual slow-boil outrage), disapproved of Emerson's travels and general worldliness. Emerson, for his part, critiqued just about everything with his boundless wit and insight, but also enjoyed success, pleasure, and attention.
If this sounds like a stoner dorm-room argument to you (Dude! Who cares about writing for an audience? Follow your art!), you're not far off the mark. But this 90-minute depiction manages to dig deeper into the ambiguities and contradictions between the two. For starters, Emerson wasn't unsympathetic to Thoreau's rejection of society and convention (in the early going, Forbes thunders hard on Waldo's exhortation for us each to "build your own world"), and when Thoreau finally came through with Walden, Emerson encouraged his friend to birth the project into the public arena (thus delivering to the world a rejection of the world).
Finally Emerson departs for Europe, leaving Thoreau to take care of his wife and children. It's the beginning of the end: In this depiction, Thoreau does too good a job taking Emerson's place, a fact that does not go unnoticed by Waldo when he returns after six months away. It all brings up things that Emerson would rather not face, such as his pioneering work in intimacy issues (he escapes getting diagnosed and hurled into couples' therapy by a tidy century).
At the end, Emerson is up there eulogizing his deceased former friend, and the weight of it all hits home. When together, they decried spiritual cheapness, the worship of greed, and the hollowing out of the meaning they found when they walked the fields as friends. These ideas shine like a late-summer sun, and here find an appropriate and skilled depiction.