Reviewed by Judy Richter
There's an inherent sweetness in "Theophilus North," Matthew Burnett's stage adapation of Thornton Wilder's last novel. Set in Newport, R.I., in the spring and summer of 1926, it relates the adventures of the 30-year-old title character, who lands there after his old car breaks down. A Yale graduate with some teaching and traveling under his belt, he has little money. Hence, he finds various jobs as a tennis teacher, French tutor and reader. In the process, he meets a variety of people and helps to make a difference in their lives.
Wilder's semi-autobiographical book contained a series of stories about the hero's encounters, but playwright Burnett whittles them down to four, weaving them throughout the two-act play, which is receiving its West Coast premiere from TheatreWorks. Seamlessly directed by Leslie Martinson, this production features a pitch-perfect cast with Mark Anderson Phillips as the bicycle-riding, ever-resourceful Theophilus. (Theophilus was the name of Wilder's twin brother, who died very shortly after his birth.) Six other actors portray a variety of characters, places and objects that enrich one's understanding of the social and historic texture of the town, where some very rich people built their mansions.
Chief among the characters created by Kristin Stokes is a 14-year-old tennis student with some astute observations. Craig Marker plays her 16-year-old brother, who overcomes his shyness thanks to Theophilus' French lessons. Marker also plays a young husband who hires Theophilus to read to his pregnant wife. The wife, played by Zehra Berkman, learns to love Shakespeare and to use his plays to catch the attention of her wayward husband. Julia Brothers is memorable as the wife's nurse and as a former servant who runs a boarding house for servants and who serves as a mentor to Theophilus. Jackson Davis creates such characters as a rich old man whose daughter is trying to keep him housebound. Completing the cast is Patrick Sieler, seen as a would-be eloper, among other characters.
All of the actors clearly delineate their roles, aided by Taisia Nikonischenko's costumes and Cliff Caruthers' sound design. The set, suggestive of a veranda, is by Annie Smart, with evocative lighting by Michael Palumbo.
"Theophilus North" is a feel-good story because all turns out well for the characters whose lives are touched by Theophilus. He in turn learns some valuable lessons about he wants to do with his own life. It also has some wonderfully poetic language to increase the pleasure.