The Brattleboro Reformer – Oct 7, 1999

Performance Focus

‘Unlaunch’d Voices’ gives audience view into Whitman’s Life

by Laura Lewis

BRATTLEBORO — When members of the audience enter the Hooker-Dunham Theatre, they do not so much enter an auditorium as step back in time into American poet Walt Whitman’s study in the year 1889. In Charles Butterfield’s effective and evocative set, books are everywhere: piled on Whitman’s desk, on chairs, on tables, on the study rug. Other writings — letters, papers, and scribblings — are scattered on every surface or crumpled on the floor. Early photographs stare impassively down from the walls. A faded pink armchair, the rose background of a Victorian flowered rug, and a red carnation on Whitman’s desk provide splashes of color.

The effect of this set is to make the audience feel as though they are visiting the house museum of a famous writer. However, museums are always tidied up. This room looks as though the writer lived there and was just about to step through the door. And in the play, of course, he does.

When the elderly Whitman, as played by Boston actor Stephen Collins, steps into his study and with a child-like openness welcomes the audience into his home, they come. In the course of the play, Collins portrays Whitman at several ages and looks very much like photographs of Whitman.

Collins’ Whitman is interested in people, is enthusiastic, optimistic, and loving. Whitman’s writing as presented here glories in mankind and shares his love of the world with the world. In his work, and most of the work quoted in the play is from different revisions of “Leaves of Grass,” he loves things by examining and praising them. He seems to feel that any censoring of his sharings about those he loved was unthinkable because the act of censoring would be unloving and dishonest. In the nineteenth century not everyone understood this philosophy.

Michael Z. Keamy’s play “Unlaunch’d Voices …” introduces Walt Whitman and his work to twentieth century audiences. Keamy has worked on this project for two years, reading everything Whitman wrote, both poetry and prose, as well as many of the biographies and critical works about him. Keamy feels that: “Walt Whitman is considered ‘America’s poet,’ but a large part of the population has either never read him or doesn’t know him.” Keamy has written his one man play to show the relevance of Whitman to our time.

In “Unlaunch’d Voices …” Keamy gives us a Whitman who, in the first act, is young and self-centered, concentrating his life on his writing, his living, his loving. The second act takes Whitman to Washington in 1862 to look for his brother who has been wounded in the Civil War. His brother recovers, but Whitman cannot leave the other wounded without trying to help them. He spends the next two years working in Washington, writing reports for the government and for New York papers. Every day Whitman visits the hospitals and works with the wounded until his own health gives out, and he returns to New York to recuperate. In this act, Keamy says, “Whitman learns to be selfless.”

Stephen Collins of Concord will be performing his one-man show, “An Evening With Walt Whitman,” next weekend at the Hancock Church In Lexington.

The text of the play is divided between direct quotes from Whitman’s writings and from the notes taken by Horace Traubel while the elderly Whitman reminisced about his life and writing. To Keamy’s credit the final product has much more of the feel of a story than that of a term paper. Audiences come to know this person rather than to be told about him.

As he worked on the play, Keamy the playwright was surprised that Whitman was so full of contradictions. “He assumed roles. There was his public image, and his private image which was kept private. We will never know everything about him. The playwright’s challenge is to constantly ask himself: ‘Am I being true to the man?”‘ Actor Stephen Collins was surprised at the poet’s boundless optimism and his range. “He was so well-read, the Bible, Eastern mysticism; he used to walk up and down the beach declaiming Homer. He was interested in so much.”

The written work, however, is only the first step in the dramatic process. Directing, acting, and all of the technical aspects must come together successfully to create a satisfactory whole and here they do. Thanks to Keamy’s sympathetic direction and Collins’ strongly created and engaging persona, the audience comes away from the one and one-half hour play interested in and affectionately disposed to Walt Whitman. Anyone interested in knowing more about this great figure from America’s past should enjoy an evening with “Unlaunch’d Voices …”

“Unlaunch’d Voices …” will be presented at the Hooker-Dunham Theatre and Gallery, Oct. 8, 9, and 10. Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., the Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. General admission is $9, $8 for seniors and students. Call (802) 254-9276 to reserve seats. Hooker-Dunham is located at the end of the alley and downstairs at 139 Main Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Laura Lewis is a freelance writer for the Reformer.