Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Reflections on Inge

I promised a report on this year’s William Inge Festival, but Jeffrey Sweet, one of theatre’s best historians and critics, was there when we honored playwright Donald Margulies, and I humbly defer to him.

Independence has no Amtrak station. No regular bus service connects it to the outside world. The airport you use to get there is in Tulsa, which is in another state. If you want to get to Independence, you have to muster determination. And yet, every year for the past 34 years, a substantial number of actors, writers and directors—largely from New York and Los Angeles—gather there to celebrate that season’s honoree.

Truth to tell, Independence is a place that Inge—a gay man seeking a life in the arts—fled at the earliest opportunity. Still, he brought Independence’s influence with him to Broadway in such long-running plays as Picnic, Bus Stop, Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Come Back, Little Sheba.

It’s also where a film based on one of his screenplays was shot. There’s a story about that: A house owned by a lady in the town struck the producers as a likely location, and some of the filmmakers visited it to talk to her about it. Later, someone asked the lady about the visit. “Oh,” she said, “that funny little Billy Inge.  He came by with some Chinaman and some Jew.” These were legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe and director Eliza Kazan—who was Greek, not Jewish, though the confusion was hardly uncommon. (Boris Kaufman ended up shooting the film instead of Howe.) The film was Splendor in the Grass.

Margulies, who hails from Brooklyn and whose work owes little discernible debt to Inge, was done proud by this year’s Inge Festival. One evening was devoted to a reading of his most recent play, The Country House. The story concerns a middle-aged actor whose family make room for him because of the biological connection but otherwise treat him with ill-concealed condescension because he doesn’t have the talent they do. When it played Broadway, some of the critics, paying overmuch attention to the influence of Chekhov, gave it a sniffy reception. It deserves better.

donald-margulies_inge-fest

Donald Margulies, center, with theatre students from Labette County High School.

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For their part, the gregarious, generous Kansans around us on the night of the Saturday night banquet at the Booth Hotel didn’t seem likely to go bonkers. There were salutes to the small army of volunteers who each year work hundreds of hours to bring a taste of professional theatre to Independence.  (The town doesn’t have a big enough audience to support an ongoing professional company.) After the festivities, I found myself chatting with a girl who talked about being introduced to Inge’s plays in high school. I remarked about what might be gleaned from his plays about how life was lived during and after the Depression in places like Independence, and about how his portraits of women, Jews and closeted gays struggling in such towns offers a reminder of how profoundly America’s social attitudes have changed in the intervening years. “I don’t know,” the girl said. “Independence is still a pretty conservative place.”