"Becoming Walt Whitman" at Sixth Street Playhouse Studio Theatre

“Becoming Walt Whitman” by David Beckman
Sixth Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photo: Peter Warden (left) and Gabriel Grilli by Eric Chazankin

“Becoming Walt Whitman” in its Bay Area premiere at Sixth Street Playhouse is a gracefully written yet daring chronicle of the celebrated poet’s intimate family life, and how it may have shaped him into the force of nature he was to become. It also shows, with humor and pathos, the genesis of “Leaves of Grass”, the work for which Whitman is best known.

Santa Rosa playwright and poet David Beckman has created a beautiful and deeply engaging tribute to a man who described himself thusly: "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".

Beckman, who had a professional background in New York City as an actor and writer, was inspired to write “Becoming Walt Whitman” after studying literature at Brown University in Providence R.I. and later reading a biography that ignited a tireless curiosity to uncover more about the man. He wanted to know the origins of Whitman’s use of free verse, radical ideas, strange imagery and sexual frankness dubbed “obscene” by critics of his day. Beckman addresses these issues with unflinching directness and it’s for this reason that the performance is recommended “For Mature Audiences”. The play had its first staging in 1993 at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica, CA.

As Walt Whitman, Gabriel Grilli is a fine actor in the cerebral sense: he combines intense sensitivity and intelligence with a certain joie de vivre which is very appealing. In the physical sense, he moves with authority, but we miss the burliness one associates with the poet. Missing as well are the sensual warmth and raw, unrefined earthiness so powerfully expressed in Whitman’s poetry.

The rest of the superb ensemble cast play multiple roles. Steve North, as Walt’s invalid father and the phrenologist Mr Fowler, practically steals the show. His distinctively piercing baritone voice and eccentric rendition of each character is truly delightful. There is a tender moment between Walt Sr. and his son where their unresolved conflicts no longer seem to matter, if only for an instant.

In a stroke of brilliance, playwright Beckman suggests that Walt’s youngest brother Ed, who is portrayed as developmentally disabled, may have served as muse and inspiration for the poet’s stream-of-consciousness prose. The performance of Peter Warden as Ed Whitman is truly extraordinary, capturing the attention and hearts of the audience at once and completely. An especially poignant scene near the end of the play has Ed and his brother Walt exchanging fragments of thought expressing love and hope that seem to spring directly from one of Whitman’s poems.

One of the more challenging dualities was taken on with agility by Landon McPherson. He played Walt’s brother Andrew, then removed his glasses as lover-coachman William. Anthony Abate is first-rate in his dual parts: the psychotic Jesse and the distinguished Oliver Wendell Holmes. Taylor Diffenderfer possesses a natural stage presence in the roles of Mary and Liz. Three other parts were played with flair by Jacquelyn Wells.

Direction and staging by Russell Kaltschmidt is effective and powerful, cleverly using the Studio venue from every angle. The production was scaled down from the 1993 original, which called for 22 characters, but it loses none of its dynamics. The action on stage keeps the audience enthralled from beginning to end, when they rise to their feet calling “Author, Author!”

“Becoming Walt Whitman” at Sixth Street’s Studio Theatre offers the rare and wonderful privilege of observing the foundation of the genius who became Walt Whitman. It is beautifully done, a reward for the mind and soul.

When: October 8 to October 24 2010
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Thursday October 21, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Tickets: $10 to $25
Location: Studio Theatre at Sixth Street Playhouse
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com