Jan. 18 2017 01:35 PM

Riverwalk Theatre explores author’s life with inventive play

Riverwalk Theatre deserves special praise for its portrayal of Ernest Hemingway a large enough task that it took four actors to capture the entirety of the author.

The world premiere community theater production of the “The Hemingway Play” traced the adult life of the literary icon. To accomplish that, four talented actors portrayed Hemingway at different points in his life. The lead actors, each skillfully playing a very different version of Hemingway, all earned “top billing” status.

Hemingway number one was Jared Ross. He capably portrayed the ever-smiling and likeable Wemedge, a 19-year-old rookie reporter. Jesse Frawley successfully played a brash-yet-crafty Hem, the successful author at 28. The 55-year-old seasoned writer, Ernest, was compellingly captured by Joe Dickson. Michael Hays completed the quartet, mastering the image of a moody, aging and tormented 60-year-old Papa.

The foursome forged ahead with distinct and formidable forms of the author, foreshadowing the Nobel Prize winner’s unfortunate fate, each with a forte that was forceful and unforgettable.

The unique, two-hour “The Hemingway Play,” masterfully wove the multi-faceted author’s different life stages in a non-linear way, as the four Hemingways meet in a Madrid restaurant. That restaurant was brought to life through a clever two-level set designed by Leroy Cupp. Frederic Hunter’s ingenious script connected different times and personalities in inventive ways, and his writing seemed to come from a knowledgeable wordsmith, historian, biographer and psychologist.

Intermingling the four Hemingways and linking components of his career and personal history is no easy undertaking for a writer or a theater company. The Riverwalk Theatre’s presentation accomplished the task with a projected ease.

Every member of the cast — not just the four principals — worked well together and independently. There were no stumbles in any actor’s polished delivery. Supporting actors Anna Szabo, as secretary Glynis; Sally Hecksel, as an adoring Dana; and Gloria Vivalda, as Luisa, the restaurant owner; all played their parts with finesse.

Todd Heywood as Vas and Chris Goeckel as Charlie were exceptional additions. Even featured actor Michael Shalley, as Julio the waiter, handled his small role with enormous flair.

Credit for fluid interactions and dialogue — including complex speeches that often had multiple segues — was due to director Bob Robinson. The master theatric mechanic somehow kept all the pistons of the intricate theatrical machine firing smoothly and at a pace that never seemed to run out of petrol.

Hemingways who were likeable and despicable, young and old exchanged articulate bickering and engaging storytelling. Robinson said it best in the program’s director’s note, describing Hemingway as “complex, tortured, kind, callous, generous, explosive, paranoid, brave and filled with anxiety.” Everyone who saw the play surely left with a better understanding of Hemingway.

I’ll mention only a few petty annoyances. The body sizes of the Hemingways were different in too many ways. And a start-of-show low-energy Spanish dance by Fran Ludington seemed out of step with the rest of the play. But since “The Hemingway Play” repeated Hemingway’s damnations and cursings of reviewers — even offering the line “I say shoot the critics!”—I’ll just leave it at that.

“The Hemingway Play”
Riverwalk Theatre
7 p.m. Thursday, Jan 19; 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20 and Saturday, Jan. 21; 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22
$15/$12 students, seniors and military
Riverwalk Theatre
228 Museum Drive, Lansing
(517) 483-5700, riverwalktheater.com.