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Wilder's less-than-wild Theophilus North 

A well-known, old graybeard is newborn here, thanks to the distinguished work of the folks at Geva Theatre Center, led by artistic director Mark Cuddy. Matthew Burnett's Theophilus North --- based on novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder's final novel --- has made it to the stage for the first time.

            The world premiere production of Theophilus North closed at Arena Stagein Washington, D.C., in early March, and the same production is now continuing at Geva. It's a real feather in Cuddy's cap to not only get Arena Stage --- one of the great, influential regional theaters in America --- to co-produce this new work, but also to put the premiere together in the first place. The play is directed by Cuddy, and was shaped by Geva's resident dramaturg, Marge Betley, with original music composed by Geva associate artist Gregg Coffin. The play was cast and designed by Geva's production team. I saw an early preview at Geva, but the production was entirely secure and polished.

            Theophilus North is an oasis of civilized behavior and concerns. Wilder's somewhat autobiographical hero takes off on a voyage of discovery, mostly self-discovery, and stops for a good while among decidedly eccentric characters in New England. Playwright Burnett adapts the novel's story to Wilder's minimalist, experimental stage techniques, even echoing the tableaux with umbrellas from Wilder's beloved Our Town. But there are no startling devices or zany departures from the conventional (as in Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which sets Noah's Flood at a beauty contest in Atlantic City, and begins the history of mankind in a living room, where the maid is dusting the dinosaurs). In Theophilus, there's the same sweet belief in the basic decency of mankind, but here it gets stylish stage tricks rather than the jolts of Wilder's pill-coated sugar.

            The play's focus is unusually fine-tuned, which is to say limited and finite. Rather than addressing archetypal young love or the survival of mankind, Theophilus examines the rigid class system of Newport, Rhode Island, during the spring and summer of 1926. There's much pleasure in visiting Wilder's wry, hopeful take on Americana. Like a well-planned tea party, there is charm and refinement, but not a lot of gut response.

            The cast is a pleasure to watch. Matthew Floyd Miller makes Theophilus appealing, earnest, and just intellectual and innocent enough to suppress any suspicion of his attraction to a 14-year-old girl, or any concern over his use of sly, smutty hints to awaken a surly, 16-year-old boy to the excitements of learning French. We see through young Theophilus's bravado and share his enthusiasms. The rest of the cast is neatly divided into three women and three men, each of whom play multiple characters.

            Edward James Hyland becomes a rapacious businessman; a hopeless snob; and a winsome, doddering old man; among other roles. Michael Laurino is a likable young man; a manipulative, cheating husband, who exposes a loving and vulnerable inner-self; and a delightfully bottled-up teenager. Andrew Polk swings showily from a horny, dumb-jock physical education teacher to a snippy, haughty servant, and more.

            Lynn Steinmetz plays motherly, helpless, and commonplace characters, but really shines as the doyenne of the servant class, a connoisseur of gossip. Siobhán Mahoney is not only believable as a precocious 14-year-old, but she switches effortlessly to a self-indulgent, spoiled, rich young woman who exudes glamorous appeal. And Valerie Leonard has the virtuosic assignment of playing an eccentric, willful mother; a bitter, neglected wife, who blossoms into a radiant amateur actress; a bossy, rich woman, who can be hurtfully cruel when she's not dusting the ceiling with her nose; and an accommodating automobile.

            The stage is open at center, but bounded by huge, rich wooden panels. Ann G. Wrightson's sophisticated lighting designs fill in its possibilities. G.W. Mercier's set and costume designs display his usual artistry. Gregg Coffin's spare, beautiful score completes the designers' suggestions of refinement, and ends several sections with an arpeggio that marks their finale like the conclusion of a Mozartian recitative. Any person of culture and refinement should be pleased with this excellent production.

            Got that? There's the rub. What this essentially closed effort will not do is reach out to entrance the unprepared and uncommitted in a theater. It does not have the theatrical urgency of Wilder's own plays. I don't think that it can. That's why it was a novel.

Theophilus North,by Matthew Burnett, adapted from the novel by Thornton Wilder, plays at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, through Sunday, May 4. Performances run Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (special matinee performance on Wednesday, April 30, at 2 p.m.). Tix: $12.50-$46.50. 232-4382,

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