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It might be the mountains, the climate, or maybe the drinking water around here, but Asheville continues its long-running good fortune at growing some very talented artists who understand the value of telling local stories, and telling them well. After all, who would know those stories better than someone who sat at the knee of their parents or grandparents as they spoke of people they knew? So maybe it should come as no surprise that some very gifted, native-born Ashevillians (and some equally astute “others”) have collectively focused their impressive talents on telling the personal story of another favorite son, Thomas Wolfe, through the brilliantly written and acted play, Return of an Angel, now in production at the Asheville Community Theater.
Return of an Angel is the loving product of years of Thomas Wolfe research by Asheville native, playwright, and artist Sandra Mason. First produced in 2007 for the Thomas Wolfe Festival in Asheville, it is a wonderfully human, witty, even-handed portrayal of the private life stories of Wolfe, his family, and friends … and former friends, as the frenzy of instant celebrity spills through the small mountain town that was Asheville in 1929 at the publication of Wolfe’s highly acclaimed first novel, Look Homeward, Angel.
Sandra Mason’s play succeeds in striking that often elusive balance between humor, gravity, achievement, and human ego and triviality in this excellent production. A tremendous cast of very talented actors bring extraordinary expertise to their performances, and also bear uncanny resemblance to the characters they are portraying.
Thomas Wolfe brought fame and fortune to himself as well as unsolicited notoriety to many of Asheville’s residents with the much-anticipated publication of his first novel. Initially, publication of “the book” was, in the minds of many in Asheville, the beginning of a well deserved and much sought success for Wolfe; locals knew he was brilliant, well educated, and reputed to be an excellent writer. Advance sales were good, including those in Asheville; Scribner’s, Wolfe’s publishing house, was pleased.
Then, local folks started to read the book – or parts of it, anyway. (First edition cover pictured on right)
And what a fury of local turmoil erupted as people read and recognized themselves and others, only thinly disguised with minor name changes. The good people of Asheville read only certain parts, not the entirety of the book – after all, it was a very long book – and scandal proceeded to wail through town on a firestorm of gossip and insinuation, the likes of which Asheville had never known. Writing in the margins of the book the names of the real people each of the characters portrayed quickly became a popular local pastime. Of course, as the book soared to national popularity, with some suggestion of a classic by those in the know, many locals went from being mad about being mentioned in the book to being mad about NOT being mentioned in the book. Ah, such is the human condition.
The resulting aftermath of emotions, a rollercoaster both funny and somber, is beautifully portrayed by an excellent cast led by Tom Dalton as Thomas Wolfe. Dalton looks every bit the tall, talented, yet tormented Thomas, but his performance is much more than skin deep. Dalton, a professional actor, teacher, and performer in numerous Shakespearean plays since receiving his MFA from the University of South Carolina in 1993, thoughtfully portrays Wolfe’s conflicted sense of confusion, pride, and discomfort at all the local uproar over this book that he labored over for so many years.
The scenes with Dalton and Dr. Charles “Sonny” Bell, who portrays Wolfe’s immensely able and tolerant editor at Scribner’s, Max Perkins, are among the best in the play. Bell, who shares an October 3 birthday with Wolfe, is Professor Emeritus of Western Illinois University, where he has served for seventeen years as Head of the Acting Program.
Carla Pridgen, who takes on the character of Julia Westall Wolfe, Thomas’ mother, is top notch. An actress with years of stage experience, Pridgen provides an excellent rendering of Julia Wolfe’s tough life as a mountain woman in the early Twentieth Century, her undying belief in her son, and the independence for which Julia was known.
Maggie Marshall, an award-winning Los Angeles transplant who now lives in Asheville, brings great wit and humor to her role as Wolfe’s sister, Mabel Wolfe Wheaton. Mabel is one character that Sandra Mason uses to expose a lot of the gossipy silliness that came to bear as Look Homeward, Angel made its way through town – including Mabel’s book club. Mabel even mentions her lovely home on Kimberly Avenue, something that modern day Ashevillians will recognize and enjoy.
Another terrific and mostly humorous performance is turned in by Stephen N. Moore, who plays Fred Wolfe, Tom’s older brother. An accomplished stage and television actor, Moore gets plenty of laughs as Fred Wolfe quotes his brother’s book and the mention of his “big, idiot grin” – which even good-natured Fred takes exception to, both before and after throwing his brother’s book at the wall! Joanna Beck, an Asheville native and popular singer and actress who has lived a very accomplished career on the New York stage in productions such as Cats, Showboat, Annie, and Fiddler on the Roof, turns in an insightful performance as Mrs. Roberts, Thomas Wolfe’s most influential teacher. Beck has an excellent singing voice, which is showcased in the play. The character of Mrs. Roberts helps to highlight the keen sense of hurt feelings that ran rampant through Asheville when Look Homeward, Angel was first published – as well as the eventual calm and understanding that came with the passage of time … and fully reading the book.
Randy McCracken and Tiffany Cade, with strong performances as George McCoy (publisher of The Asheville Citizen) and Lola Love (reporter and George McCoy’s fiancé), respectively, round out the major roles in the play. Diana LaSpada, who plays Clara, Mabel’s ever-faithful friend, turns her small role into an endearing comedic highlight of the play.
Return of an Angel is produced by Occasional Theatre, the brain trust of the capable, artistic husband and wife team of Michael Lilly and Asheville-born Brenda Lunsford Lilly. The Occasional Theatre focuses it attention on the work of good playwrights – particularly North Carolina playwrights – and bringing them to the stage. Now living in Asheville, Michael and Brenda both have had long and successful careers in many different roles in the entertainment industry, including Michael’s 2001 direction of Ed Simpson’s play, Additional Particulars, for which he won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award nomination, and Brenda’s role as Executive Producer of the critically acclaimed and award winning television series, State of Grace, which was based on her own experiences as an Asheville schoolgirl at St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines (now part of Carolina Day School) in the mid-1960s.
Return of an Angel is currently running at the Asheville Community Theater, 35 East Walnut Street, in downtown Asheville. Its final four performances are scheduled for this weekend, Friday through Sunday, October 9 – 11. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30PM on the main stage; Saturday and Sunday performances are at 2:30PM. Tickets are $22 for adults, $19 for seniors and students. Tickets are available at www.ashevilletheatre.org or at the ACT box office (by phone, 828-254-1320), 10AM-4PM, Tuesday through Saturday.
(First and third Images provided by Occasional Theatre) (First Edition Cover image provided by Thomas Wolfe Memorial.)