- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

With war looming and economic recovery taking its sweet time, nostalgia can be seductive, and a theater ticket can take you back to a simpler America.
On Broadway, Thornton Wilder's evocation of small-town living, "Our Town," is being revived with the comforting presence of Paul Newman playing the narrator, and New York is also hosting a revival of Paul Osborn's homespun "Mornings at Seven." Arena is the latest to turn the clock back (Round House produced "Our Town" last season), with its congenial new adaptation by Matthew Burnett of Thornton Wilder's 1973 novel "Theophilus North." Written two years before Mr. Wilder's death, the novel is a wonderfully detailed account of a young man set loose in 1920s Newport, R.I., after ditching his respectable job as a schoolteacher.
Theophilus, played with sunny buoyancy by Matthew Floyd Miller in Mr. Burnett's adaptation, has much in common with George Bailey, the protagonist in Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life." Like Bailey, Theophilus dreams of adventure and world travel, but circumstances intervene (a broken jalopy strands him in Newport for the season), and he winds up learning life lessons from the people surrounding him and realizing that there's no place like home.
Both characters are practical romantics heads in the clouds, feet firmly planted on the ground which makes them ideal embodiments of a classic American type. And they are both smart enough in the end to realize the journey is what matters, not the sometimes unreachable destination. You only wish the play adaptation was destined to be a classic in its medium, like "It's A Wonderful Life." But "Theophilus North" is leisurely, episodic and nothing really happens. It's pretty enough, and it floats by like a dandelion burr on a river. But have you ever watched a dandelion burr float down a river for two hours?
Theophilus is an intelligent and resourceful Yale man at the beginning and a slightly more self-aware, intelligent and resourceful Yale man at the curtain call. There is a reach for some dramatic lightning near the end, when Theophilus realizes he is a dabbler in life and needs to love and be loved, but it comes out of nowhere and doesn't amount to much.
You could do worse than an evening of even-tempered theater. The set, by G.W. Mercier, is a handsome sprawl of glossy parquet wood with Theophilus' trademark bicycle commanding center stage. Mr. Mercier also fashioned the costumes, a jaunty tribute to the tennis sweaters and "racy" chemises worn by the rich in 20's Newport.
A cast of six (Siobhan Mahoney, Valerie Leonard, Lynn Steinmetz, Michael Laurino, Andrew Polkm and Edward James Hyland) play the various folks who meander in and out of Theophilus' life.
Particularly vivid is Miss Mahoney as the wise-beyond-her-years Eloise Fenwick. Theophilus tutors her in tennis, but she ends up coaching him in life. Mr. Laurino perfectly embodies a teenage boy covering his raging hormones and uncertainties behind an armor of snootiness, while Mr. Hyland beautifully personifies an elderly man of wealth and intellect who finds unexpected liberation near the end of his days.
The main problem with the play is Theophilus. Mr. Miller shines with the optimism and sunniness of Theophilus' outward persona. But we see so little of his interior struggles with the challenges of entering adulthood that we care little for him. He seems like just another young American male who is in no hurry to grow up. We've seen enough of the Peter Pan syndrome, thank you very much.

WHAT: "Theophilus North" by Matthew Burnett
WHERE: Arena Stage, Kreeger Theatre, 1101 Sixth St. SW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, selected Tuesday and Wednesday matinees at noon. Through March 2.
TICKETS: $34 to $52
PHONE: 202/488-3300

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