Because Lansing Community College’s current outdoor theatre production is mostly in the hands of 11 students and three graduates of the school’s Second Semester Theatre Studio, many of them with little or no acting experience, watching “Theophilus North” could easily have felt like a class exercise or final exam. But it didn’t. It felt like real theater, thanks to experienced director Andy Callis and an exuberant, luminous performance from the star, Devin Faught, as Theophilus North.
However, it’s also theater with real problems. One of them is playwright Matthew Burnett’s adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s last novel, published in 1973 when Wilder was 76. Those who aren’t familiar with Wilder’s novel or the rarely-produced Burnett script — and that would be most of the audience — can easily get confused or downright lost by the way the four separate stories are told.
To add to the lack of cohesion, most of the characters are one-dimensional as written, and consequently played in one-note fashion by the LCC actors (mostly by the women). And, as with most outdoor summer theatre, the actors are not individually miked, making it difficult to hear what must have been important lines.
“Theophilus North” takes us to Newport, R.I., in the summer of 1926. It tells the story of a 30-year-old, Yale-educated teacher who unflinchingly quits his job to set off in search of risk and adventure.
“I want to be a free man,” he announces. (Today’s under-siege Michigan schoolteachers can surely identify.) North’s idea of adventure is Rome, Budapest, Cairo, Berlin and maybe New York City, but, alas, his used car breaks down on the way to freedom, “temporarily” stranding him in Newport.
Needing money to continue his journey, North takes a variety of jobs tutoring and reading aloud to wealthy residents, teaching both good grammar and naughty French expressions to a shy teenage boy, helping a rich father stop the elopement of his daughter with a poor fianc, and reading Shakespeare with spectacular results to a pregnant woman with an unfaithful husband. “I may be poor, but I’m cheerful,” North proclaims.
As these different escapades unfold, it’s clear that this production of “Theophilus North” belongs to the male actors. Primarily, it belongs to Faught, who plays his part with obvious love and respect for his character, infusing him with humanity, whimsy and wisdom. Somersaulting (literally) onto the stage, Faught stays interesting to the very last scene, which calls for some heavy lifting to pull together the various messages of the play. This Faught delivers.
Also outstanding is Richard C. Redman, who gives a focused performance as what first appears to be merely a cranky old man with health problems but who is really — in Redman’s powerful interpretation — a man of heart and vision. Andy Shumaker, as the teen who learns more than French under North’s tutelage, is also particularly appealing.
In the end, North himself is changed by the lessons he learns from the lives he has touched and discovers that the only adventure he needs is to be surrounded by “a constellation. Of people.” He finds his true calling, as a writer, and embraces the very thing he has been teaching his Newport friends all along, “the acceptance of love.”
LCC Summer Stage Under the Stars
8 p.m. July 18-22
Lansing Community College
411 N. Grand Ave., Lansing