The gentler man from Indiana 

The Gentleman from Indiana
Indiana Repertory Theatre
Through Oct. 7  
Tickets: 635-5252

In 1905, when the first stage version of The Gentleman from Indiana world-premiered in Indianapolis, its producer George Tyler found “it just plain wouldn’t rehearse.” Though this first novel of local favorite son Booth Tarkington had been a national best seller in 1899, his own conversion of it into a play left the expectant local audience cold. His revision opened a few months later in Boston for a similarly ruinous run.

The novel’s unabashedly 19th-century story and style would seem to present even more difficulties when intended for a 21st century audience. But James Still, Indiana Repertory Theatre playwright-in-residence, has taken on the formidable task of translating the nearly 400-page novel into stagework. With the help of impressively stable opening night direction by Peter Amster, well-designed stagecraft (especially costumes and sound), and the even competence of the large cast, Still and the IRT largely succeed in conveying the central spirit of the novel while offering an entirely pleasant evening of well-paced theatre to get their 35th season off to a rousing start.  

The story finds easterner John Harkless (Jason Bradley) arriving in backwater Plattville, Indiana, to take ownership of a newspaper he has purchased with every last cent of his inheritance. Called “The Great Harkless” in college, he wants now to make something of himself, even here. Instead he’s made one of the world’s worst business deals for a paper the entire town agrees is “poor.” So report the two erstwhile “narrators”, Old Tom Martin (Mark Goetzinger) and Miss Selena Gibbs (Jan Lucas), engaging when passing along Tarkington’s still perceptive descriptions of town and country, less so when delivering back-story.

But the troubled Mr. Harkless takes to the folksy town — presented as a chorus to usually fine effect, utterly wonderful in a circus parade scene — and it takes to him. After he saves fallen professor Fisbee from his drunkenness and hires on the town’s sole black man Xenophon (played with verve by Robert Elliot and David Alan Anderson, respectively), Harkless wins the people’s devotion when he takes down political boss Congressman Rodney McCune. (Charles Goad plays McCune amusingly as the current George Bush mixed with a bit of Kingfish Huey Long.) McCune warns that the White Caps, ruffian moonshiners from nearby Six-Cross-Roads who here too directly suggest the Indiana Klan of the 1920s, will be delivering Harkless a stern message. The historical anachronism and the politically corrected role of Xenophon may be easily forgiven as service to the contemporary audience.  

As Harkless lends support to new Congressman Kedge Halloway (also played by Goad as a wacky Wizard of Oz-type philosopher), new arrival Helen Sherwood (Emily Ristine) appears to bedazzle the town. This scene, the first and most successful of many that play “split-staged” in creative ways, is a marvel of conception and completion. Even as Halloway huffs and puffs his stuffy speech about the fly and its future, Helen steals the hearts of the town as well as the scene. Only the forlorn newsman fails to notice her great beauty and social aplomb. But soon enough his civic duty and a shootout with a White Cap introduce the two, and Helen wins John’s lonely heart. Here, we perhaps lose the book’s sense of Harkless’s salvation from depression by his new sense of purpose, but the superb Ristine and steady Bradley (rather better with the romantic Harkless than the tough-minded one) play the melodrama of the romance with perfection.

Several moments of clever shtick ensue, distractingly because they seem almost parodic. For instance, Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” replaces Schubert’s “Serenade” as Helen’s siren song largely to set up a Kentucky joke. And Still can’t resist an insider’s smirk at Tarkington himself with a scene that promotes the feminism of Ibsen, a playwright among those moderns whose “sex plays” the conservative Hoosier often disparaged.   

Of course, there’s no sex here and even the sweet happiness is a fleeting when Helen — prototype for the shrewd angels of early Tarkington work that critic Robert Holliday called “embodiments of the romantic and chivalrous dreams of women”  — is called away for a trip to Europe. John despairs of fate’s fickle finger at the very moment the White Caps pay a more serious return visit. 

Act Two faces more difficulties that playwright Still handles less gracefully. Most of the act plays with the principals separated as rapid plot twists and mistaken identities pull reason asunder. 

Of the book’s several thematic interests — political ethics, the nature of success, the growing rural-urban divide, mob versus community mentality, the civic spirit of Hoosiers, and the caprice of romance — Still has focused on the last two where both he and Tarkington let the story end. As Harkless raises his own vague but poignant political voice, Helen looks on beatific and blushing in support. He rallies the “the beautiful people” of Indiana to his campaign. 

As if answering the call, the loyal opening night audience — almost to a one—rose to its feet in wild applause.  Despite the local success of this entertaining melodrama, it seems fair to wonder, given Harkless’s original doubts about small town life, if an audience of today’s younger globalists from, say, east of here, would be so easily converted to the Hoosier cause.

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