- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2001

A yarn is just the thing to keep our souls from getting crusty in the dreary dregs of winter. Arena Stage recognizes this, and provides cracking good respite in the form of John Strand's jaunty fable, "Tom Walker."

The one-act play could be seen as a parable about how American greed hasn't changed much since our pre-Revolutionary days, or how the devil's most successful bartering chip for men's souls is money, or how the road to hell is paved with get-rich-quick schemes (take note, dot-com moguls). It also is at its essence, spooky and roaring fun.

Director Kyle Donnelly knows how to enhance the drama and tall-tale aspects of Mr. Strand's play. The production crackles with fire and brimstone, fearsome storms, pea-soup fog and a boggy marsh where Ichabod Crane would feel at home.

The play even has a Colonial witchlike figure, Cora (Margaret Kemp), who performs an incantation over a fire-filled bowl as she narrates, with a twinkle in her eye, the cautionary tale of Tom Walker.

Tom Lynch's set is deceptively simple — a rustic wood floor surrounded by what is meant to be a dirt road. But Mr. Lynch has some tricks up his sleeve, since the floor is full of trapdoors where all sorts of characters pop up to make mischief.

Much impish behavior is to be found in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Leading the pack is Tom Walker (John Glover), a personable ne'er-do-well. Tom appears allergic to hard work and just wants to play the fiddle, quaff ale and generally be amusing in the tavern.

You can imagine how his shrewish wife, Rose (Kate Buddeke), who makes her first appearance rising up from a trapdoor as if borne aloft by Satan's harpies, feels about her husband's idleness. Tom tries to appease her by coming up with moneymaking schemes (one involves recycling animal carcasses into fresh meat), which she listens to while keeping one hand on the family silver that Tom tries to pawn.

One night, while taking the scenic route home from roistering — Mr. Glover emphasizes the fanciful atmosphere of Mr. Strand's play by affecting a long-limbed stride that reminds one of a figure in a Thomas Hart Benton painting — Tom encounters a folkloric figure known as the Black Woodsman or Old Scratch (Wendell Wright). This looming being looks Lucifer-ish enough for Tom — he can fling fireballs from his hands, and his face is painted with voodoo designs. The devil figure wants to cut a deal: Tom's immortal soul in exchange for wealth.

This being Satan, there is a catch. Tom is to become a money lender, a cruelly pragmatic man who preys on the most desperate cases. This situation offers much humor to be mined, as Tom hems and haws over which would be worse — to spend eternity in damnation or to be tortured further here on Earth by his serpent-tongued wife.

Money wins out, and Tom begins his life as a rich man. His ragged clothes are replaced by a brocade frock coat and matching silk britches, and an expensive powdered wig covers his head. Too bad Rose has been driven insane by her vituperative encounter with the devil on her husband's behalf. She would have been pleased to see how easily her husband takes to a life of all business. Turns out old Tom has a knack for being pitiless and mercenary.

The colder and nastier Tom is, the more of a kick he seems to get out of it. His biggest charge comes out of soliciting sexual favors from the Widow Baines (Martha Hackett) as collateral for a loan. The pair strike their own personal devil's bargain — truth be told, the Widow Baines seems to rather like keeping up her end of the deal — and both become ensnared in a juicy web of deception and revenge. This surprisingly involves the devil and his daughter, Cora.

Mr. Wright is a marvel as the devil. He's mysterious and fearsome when needed, but also a slyly convincing debater when spouting Mr. Strand's ideas on why we need Satan in our lives. He is like a mirror that reflects and reveals our deepest secrets, our true natures that we try so hard to hide, the vices we strive to cover up with virtues.

This peculiarly American take on the Faust story hums with energy and high spirits. The characters move on the stage as if on the verge of dancing. They are young characters let loose in a young country. Mr. Glover catches that fresh spirit in a performance that combines canny comic timing with an ability to garner our empathy when the going gets rough for Tom Walker.

Miss Hackett radiates warmth and cleverness as the Widow Baines, while Miss Buddeke gives us a thorny Rose who is not above our sympathy. Miss Kemp also is excellent as the quicksilver Cora, who can go from a bewitching devil-woman to an exasperated dutiful daughter with magical ease.

Mr. Strand and Miss Donnelly know how to richly entertain with shows — "Lovers and Executioners" comes to mind — that not only are smart and funny but make the audience feel smart and funny.

"Tom Walker" presents serious issues and political messages, but Mr. Strand and Miss Donnelly never forget that people like to laugh, gasp at a few well-chosen special effects and savor assured acting. With this production, we get all three.{*}{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "Tom Walker"WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SWWHEN: 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; and 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, through March 4TICKETS: $27 to $45202/488-3300

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