Compass Rose Theater’s Look Homeward Angel
Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” A decade before coining that phrase, he showed us why in his 1929 debut novel Look Homeward Angel. This thinly veiled memoir of a tumultuous youth in his mother’s Dixieland Boardinghouse made him a pariah in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and a literary star to the rest of the nation. The 1958 stage adaptation by Ketti Frings won every major prize for American drama that year, and it still rings true and relevant.
Compass Rose Theater’s beautiful production stars a talented University of Maryland grad, Shane O’Loughlin, in the lead role of Eugene Gant. A bookish young man, he yearns for education and escape from his overbearing mother, Eliza (artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne), and his romantic but alcoholic father, W.O. Gant (Gary Goodson) Bret Jaspers costars as elder brother Ben, the cynical voice of experience who urges Eugene to flee. Who can blame them? Life with Eliza, the self-proclaimed “sharpest trader in town,” is no tea party. In a perpetual quest for cash, she puts the comfort of strangers above the needs of her own family, whom she manipulates into doing her bidding.
Dapper Ben isn’t healthy enough to escape to World War I, as did his brother Luke (Chris Creane). So he helps in Father’s monument shop and passes the evenings at dingy Dixieland with a sympathetic older boarder named Fatty (Janise Whelan). Big sister Helen (Kathryn Zoerb) and her husband Hugh (Dan Reno) are likewise caught in Eliza’s clutches as near servants. The other boarders are Uncle Will (Ed Klein); old Mrs. Clatt (Nancy Long); her son Jake (Eli Pendry); and a charming new arrival, Laura James (Lindsay Clemmons), who brings Eugene his first happiness and heartache. Dr. McGuire (Richard Fiske) is a frequent visitor to the home as well. Only the notorious Madame Elizabeth (Maura Claire Harford) never crosses the threshold, though she is on good terms with Father.
From the melee, Eugene’s transformation from guileless gopher to mutineer is remarkable, culminating in a confrontation that will shake you to your weepy bones. Drawing equally on the strength of all the leads, this production gets four stars for credibility: from the sharp period fashions to the missing newels on the faded front porch to the manner of the family’s explosion with love and disdain. The only unbelievable part is Eliza and Father’s tantrum, which is too gentle on the set. I hope they go wild on closing night.