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Sunday, 03 February 2013 22:54

Dry grass

Written by Bob Wilcox
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In the 1950s, William Inge could be named with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams as a leading American playwright. He seemed to be dealing boldly with ordinary Midwestern Americans and their struggles with a society that repressed sex and celebrated material wealth.

But Inge no longer keeps that exalted company. His language lacks the richness of Williams' language, his analysis of American culture lacks the complexity of Miller's analysis, and his characters lack the psychological depth of either of the others. His plays often seem banal, predictable, cliched.

Take the piece recently done by the Clayton Community Theatre, "Splendor in the Grass". Set in 1928 in a small town in Kansas like the one where Inge grew up, Bud is the local golden boy, football hero, son of the richest man in town. Deanie is the prettiest girl in their senior class – less exalted economically, but class lines are not that rigid in Kansas. They are deeply in love – and in lust, which is a problem in Kansas in 1928. Nice girls don't do that sort of thing, and nice boys don't ask them to. But when Bud's hormones are just too much and he takes up with the class's “bad girl,” Deanie has a nervous breakdown and winds up in a mental hospital, while Bud follows his father's orders and goes to Yale, where he flunks out, marries the daughter of Italian immigrants who run a pizza parlor in New Haven (“What's pizza?” Bud asks in 1929), and goes back home to a farm when his family loses everything in the crash. No more splendor, in the grass or anywhere else.

"Splendor in the Grass" began life as a movie, the first one Inge had written. He won a screenplay Oscar for it. Natalie Wood was luminous as Deanie and Warren Beatty more than fit the golden boy image in his screen debut. Elia Kazan's direction supplied any dramatic punch lacking in Inge's script.

The Clayton Community Theatre performed an adaptation of Inge's screenplay by F. Andrew Leslie. It was not adapted enough. With 24 scenes, the frequent scene changes sometimes seemed longer than the scenes themselves, despite the efficiency of the stage crew moving the furniture. The constant interruptions defeated any chance that director Dani Mann and her cast could create the rhythms that would build a dramatic arc for the production. Some performances showed promise, but they were brief flashes. Then we waited in the dark for another scene in which I would find myself thinking, “Come on, Inge, surely you're not going there.” And then he did.

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