t is amazing that a work written about Minnesota nearly 100 years ago could continue to be so cleverly exacting today. Such is the case with Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street,” the latest production by the Great American History Theatre. “Main Street” is about the cultural clashes that ensue when a woman dreams of New York arts and culture while living in Gopher Prairie, Minn.
As my companion and I arrived at the theater, we noticed a number of stares directed at our chosen garb, which for me included a puffy baby-blue Donna Karan skirt held together by clips, producing a “this could just come off at any minute” look. My guest donned “Liberace gone to business school” coming-out attire. Little did we know that the sea of middle-aged women in denim-wear were setting us up for an ironic commentary on St. Paul culture.
“Main Street,” as adapted by Craig Wright (lately most recognized for “Orange Flower Water” at the Jungle Theatre and HBO’s “Six Feet Under”), is a satire of the small-minded Midwestern, and ultimately American, attitude of battling out intellectual pursuits against moral perfection. The story weaves in and out of the troubled and complicated relationship between Carol (Carolyn Pool) and Will Kennicott (Brian Goranson), and uses the romance as its vehicle and platform for positing its political agenda.
Immediately engrossing, Carol comes onto the stage in a fury, calling into question her marriage with Will, their extramarital affairs and her tragic flaw: superiority and intellectuality. Carol is presented as a high-minded woman ahead of her time, claiming, “I want to do something with my life … I want everything in the world!” However, this attitude sharply contradicts the conservative and moralistic constraints of life in Gopher Prairie.
Carolyn Pool’s performance highlights Carol’s longing for a sense of security with strength and poise. Pool stands upon the stage as a woman bound by the judgment of the spectator, screaming out in rage at the social conditions of her time. She is desperate, longing and savage. Throughout the production Pool leads the stage with her voice calling for a better life, for more culture, for opportunity and for an existence without the constraints of material concerns such as money and mortgages.
Goranson, her more subtle counterpart, plays the once-rigid husband that slowly and with difficulty comes to understand that his wife’s desire cannot be contained in the gossipy town of “uninvited interested guests.” Goranson is so commanding and understated that he can claim not to understand Carol while gazing at her in both apathy and sympathy. It is Goranson’s understanding that holds the marriage together, and leads us through a performance of true civility.
Ron Peluso ingeniously uses the talents of the supporting cast through timing, sound and blocking. In one scene he has actor number one (Stephen D’Ambrose) make the sound of a crying baby during a dinner party, which is so skillfully executed it brings the entire house to fits of laughter. D’Ambrose demonstrates his uncanny skill at jumping in and out of characters, playing four supporting roles.
The set design is delightful as well, with a swirling and sweeping road that also serves as a living space, quite reminiscent of what we would imagine the end of the Yellow Brick Road to look like. The stage is cluttered with windows and abstractions of peak-roofed houses that lift up and down to create a maze of rooftops vis-a-vis the elimination of privacy and walls, in the homes of Gopher Prairie.
Carol spends nearly her entire life fighting against convention, and finally in the end of the performance declaims: “Institutions, not individuals, are the enemy … and the only defense against them is unembittered laughter.” Carol has not come to accept convention, but has learned how to live with it.
As we left the theater and walked among the St. Paul theater-going crowd, we boisterously discussed the production. To our bewilderment, we received even more glares from our fellow neighbors as they noticed our loud voices matched our loud outfits. Did our fellow patrons not register the content of the play? Was it for them just a production about someone else? We did learn a lesson from Carol, and we strolled along casually on a Saturday night, brought to unembittered laughter as we walked gaily on.
“Main Street” plays through May 18 at the Great American History Theatre, (651) 292-4323