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WILDER ANIMALS 

CPH hosts a menagerie of Americana characters

With its grand edifice on the block and bill collectors knocking at the door, the Cleveland Play House faces adversity. Adversity, however, seems to be just the fertilizer to make artistic director Michael Bloom blossom, for he is doing his most masterly Elia Kazan pressure-cooker direction in a massive stage adaptation of Heaven's My Destination, a little-known 1935 Thornton Wilder novel.

The work is an Edward Hopper-flavored, picaresque account of the travels of a Don Quixote textbook salesman. George Brush is a religious zealot — warning women of the dangers of smoking and advising bank robbers on how to turn over a new leaf — who is chastened by a series of misfortunes. The tone is redolent of the darker side of small-town America that Wilder injected into his screenplay for Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.

The CPH production is an oasis for an institution that usually adheres to a mundane path of the safe and the bland, for there is a grab here for a kind of greatness and bizarre magnificence. Sadly, this greatness is tied to a charismatic failure, which doesn't spring from the production's details, but from an unwise fidelity to the novel itself. Judging by his compulsion to include almost every incident contained in the novel, it's apparent that adapter Lee Blessing is besotted with the material. Yet he fails to give us the emotional directness and simplicity that are the cornerstones of Wilder's own plays and would elucidate the major scenes of the book.

It's been many seasons since CPH delivered such a sweeping and well-executed presentation. The versatile eight-member cast dexterously bounces through a menagerie of '30s Americana characters in a manner that suggests the entire Warner Bros. commissary had been raided. As the play's fulcrum, Michael Halling calls up that commanding neurotic intensity that made Anthony Perkins our favorite psycho. The remainder of the company vibrantly embodies a diverse congregation that includes smoky-voiced whores, kind-hearted landladies and vicious small-town bigots. Russell Parkman's set design resembles a thrift shop after an earthquake, but it miraculously transforms itself with cinematic flair into everything from a train parlor car to a tacky brothel.

Even with a flawed script, there's an expansiveness to the evening rarely seen outside of the latest musical extravaganza.

arts@clevescene.com

More by Keith A. Joseph

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