Walt, a play that introduces us to the life and times and poetry of Walt Whitman through dramatization of events in his life that shaped his thinking and a few musical settings of his poetry, opened on Friday at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. The play, written by Bill Whitman (fifth cousin six times removed of Walt Whitman), was first produced at The University of Iowa Playwrights Festival, May 8, 1986. This performance is the Southeast premiere.

How do you portray a character like Walt Whitman on stage? – He, always proclaiming himself all-inclusive, all-conscious, a kosmos? The playwright divides him two roles, not necessarily opposite sides of the philosopher/poet, but representing two levels of depth, perhaps. Mark Filiaci plays the Walt who lives the life and is always utilitarian. Michael Shannon is cast as “Other Soul,” the reflective, but equally practical Walt. Both Filiaci and Shannon were excellent in bringing a larger-than-life perspective to the fascinating central character in this well-paced production.

The play opens with scenes from Whitman’s childhood. Kedric Scherle played an outstanding young Walt with a confident and competent smile and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Whitman early on developed a cynical opinion on the authorship of Shakespearean plays. In one scene, young Walt’s mother, Louisa (Page Purgar), encourages her son to read Shakespeare. He glances at it thoughtfully and then tosses it aside, saying he would read it later, but right then, he had more swimming to do. It seemed likely typical behavior of the young Whitman.

Incidental music was written for the play by the accomplished movie and drama composer Jonathon Price, who is composer-in-residence at SkyPilot Theatre in Los Angeles. There are a number of short pieces spread throughout the play that are designed to enhance the mood and feel of the time. A short song accompanied by rhythmical carpenter’s hammers and saws was heard near the beginning. A couple of short opera-like pieces were sung by Emily K. Byrne, whose excellent voice has been heard regularly in Long Leaf Opera productions. There was a delightful African-American traditional song worked in nicely by Hazel S. Edmund in her role as Hattie.

There were two relatively involved production numbers: one ending the first act; the other, in the middle of the second act, was a setting of lines from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” It was not perfect, but was well enough done to appreciate the effort.

Glenn Mehrbach, locally known and highly regarded for his jazz, pop, and cabaret stylings, is music director and pianist.

The play focuses primarily on the efforts and work that went into Leaves of Grass, its publications and its reception and legacy. In June 1855, 795 copies were printed and distributed at Whitman’s own expense. His brother, George (Daniel Freeman), said he didn’t think it worth reading. His mother was devastated by the open descriptions of sensuality. Some friends considered it pornographic. Others attacked it because it did not rhyme. The one bright spot came from Ralph Waldo Emerson (David Sweeney), who wrote a five-page glowing tribute to Whitman for his accomplishment in the poem.

The second act of Walt took us along on his Civil War adventures, his struggles with income, and some of his relationships with friends and lovers. He would go on revising and republishing Leaves of Grass until his death in 1892.

Walt Whitman gave us the open spirit of America. In that first edition of Leaves of Grass, no name is given as author; instead, facing the title page was an engraved portrait done by Samuel Hollyer. However, 500 lines into the body of the text the author calls himself “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest.” Perhaps Modernist poet Ezra Pound was right when he called Whitman “America’s poet… He is America.”

All those appearing in Walt appear in multiple roles. Those not yet mentioned are Mary Forester (Carpenter, Margaret Barnes, Harpy, Concord Woman, Surgeon, Mary Mann), David Klionsky (Elias Hicks, Riverboat Captain, Harpy, Soldier, Lincoln, Student), and Justin Smith (Carpenter, Bill Sutton, Jeff, Harpy, Soldier, Aid to Harlan, Student.) The cast was well balanced and all played off of each other very effectively. It was a fine ensemble.

All of the production team, headed by Jeri Lynn Schulke as the director/producer, did a superb job with all the delicate and labor-intensive chores of putting this play together. A play like Walt, based on a well-known historical character can easily get heavy and draggy. Keeping it lively, crisply timed, and running well requires eyes facing all directions, ears that don’t allow any cue to be missed, patience, and persistence. The proof is in the pudding, or rather in the show.  

Walt continues through Sunday, May 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.