By Sean O’Leary. Based on the novel by George Fetherling. Directed by Jack Paterson. A frank theatre company production. At Presentation House on Friday, October 14. Continues until October 23
Two hours of intriguing preamble, 20 minutes of genuine drama: Walt Whitman’s Secret feels like an extremely long trailer for a really good novel.
That novel, by Vancouver writer George Fetherling, is the basis for Sean O’Leary’s stage adaptation, set in 1918, which focuses on the relationship between an elderly Walt Whitman and his biographer and self-professed disciple, Horace Traubel, whom Walt is urging to marry another of his devotees, Anne Montgomerie. As the three question the nature of true love—as expressed in Whitman’s poems and in their lives—Walt is haunted by memories of his own great romance decades earlier with a younger man named Pete.
There’s an abundance of rich material in this blend of fact and fiction, but O’Leary’s script is thin on theatricality. The physical action is static: Walt spends most of his stage time in bed, talking to whichever character is visiting him. Director Jack Paterson attempts to liven things up with movement sequences that express the sensual liberation celebrated in Whitman’s poetry, and the production’s design elements inject energy: the all-white surround of Michelle Allard’s set becomes a canvas for the shadows thrown by Itai Erdal’s sculptural lighting, Carmen Alatorre cleverly slips wisps of manuscript into details of her handsome period costumes, and Dorothy Dittrich’s music is sumptuously textured.
All of the actors are compelling, too. Tom Pickett sports a bushy beard and a twinkle in his eye as Walt, whose mischievous charm magnetizes both Horace, played with emotional nuance by Conrad Belau, and Anne, to whom Adele Noronha brings a warm-hearted, grounded presence. Kamyar Pazandeh’s Pete is confidently captivating, though neither as otherworldly nor as sensual as one might expect a ghost lover to be.
But despite the production’s strengths, the wordy dialogue gets repetitive, and the play lacks clear stakes. Walt wants Horace to marry Anne—but we know this will eventually happen, because the opening scene introduces us to Anne after her husband’s funeral. Horace wants Walt to reveal the secret of his great love, but we’ve already met Pete in Walt’s reveries. The exchanges about Walt’s poetry are engaging—it’s fun to watch Walt respond to Anne’s contention that the earlier versions of Leaves of Grass are better than subsequent revisions—but they don’t lead to an accumulation of tension. And many lines feel inexpertly lifted from the page, which drags down the rhythm. At one point, Anne asks, “We haven’t stumbled into a state of being for which the English language has no word, have we?” It’s meant to be witty, but it’s so writerly that it falls flat.
For all the strengths of this mounting, Walt Whitman’s Secret hasn’t quite made the leap from ink on paper to living, breathing flesh.