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Mickle Street — Walnut Independence Studio on 3

untitled (37)When he was a boy, Oscar Wilde’s mother read him verse from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” a landmark collection that was published in 1855, the year after Wilde was born.

At age 28 in 1882, with his famous plays a decade ahead of him, Wilde was already a London celebrity, not only because of his stories and essays but because of the figure he cut in society. Wilde’s reputation for being an aesthete, his well-tailored but tastefully ostentatious clothes, his sporting of a green carnation, his style of speaking, his talent for epigrams, and his general flair did more than cause rampant whispering among Victorian dowagers and gents. They made him a model for parody, the most famous example being the character of Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, “Patience,” subtitled “Bunthorne’s Bride.”

“Patience” made so much money for G&S’s impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, that the wily producer synchronized “Patience” openings in the United States with a sponsored lecture tour that would introduce Oscar Wilde to populations from New York to Nevada. One of the early (and late) stops on the tour was Philadelphia, where Wilde spoke for alleged hours at the Horticultural Hall, a second choice for his lecture because the preferable 25-year-old Academy of Music was booked for the evening.

Upon learning he was coming to Philadelphia, in 1882 a more significant city on the American landscape than it is even today, Wilde made it known he wanted to have a day to traverse the Delaware River to Camden to meet the poet whose words influenced him in his childhood cradle, Walt Whitman. Playwright Michael Whistler approximates what that historic meeting, the first of two — Wilde returned to see Whitman when he spoke in Philadelphia again at the end of his tour. — in his delightfully well-imagined play, “Mickle Street,” currently being given its world premiere at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3.

For the first five sixths of “Mickle Street,” you can luxuriate in bristling conversations the two poets, one age 28 and entering his prime, the other age 62 and sadly out of fashion, have about various subjects from photography, of which Whitman was an early enthusiast, to the contemporary British poetry of Browning and Swinburne. The talk is so congenial, it gives the impression of being superficial, but while keeping matters light and fleeting, Whistler gives insight into both characters, their interests, their similarities, and their differences. It is because the byplay is brisk that the intellect and personalities come through. To keep things fresh and to provide a third comic voice, Whistler includes Whitman’s boarder and helper, Mary, among his characters. As played by Sabrina Profitt, Mary may garner more laughs than Wilde and Whitman combined. Her wit and her responses are not as studied or planned for their effect, and her middle class common sense is suited to give the poets, each in his own way a show-off, due comeuppance.

The last section of “Mickle Street” is more somber and more ponderous. It’s the part where the love that dare not speak its name, a phrase and concept as related to Whitman as it is to Wilde, comes to the fore. Here the candor that was so entertaining a part of the Whitman-Wilde meeting seems to disappear into awkwardness. Instead of the frankness the writers shared, an unexpected wariness about Whitman’s motives in agreeing to see him makes Wilde nervous. These end scenes, promulgated by a comment, and photographic exhibition of sorts, by Mary, turn the amiable visit to Whitman’s home on Mickle Street sour. They radically change the tone and mood of the play, as open mention of homosexuality might have done among lesser, less indoctrinated, figures in 1882, and are the passages Whistler should rethink as “Mickle Street” prepares for future productions, which no doubt it will attract based on the Walnut run.

Wilde, in particular, seems befuddled by the idea that something sexual might be going on in Whitman’s mind. While a young writer might want to be regarded by a proven master craftsman for his intellect, artistry, and talent, Whistler doesn’t portray Wilde’s turn of attitude as coming from pique or squeamishness. Nor does Whitman ever betray that Wilde’s company isn’t valued for its felicity and quality of conversation. These details make it more of a mystery that Wilde would become so suddenly skittish and eager to leave Mickle Street for Philadelphia.

NealBoxAs mentioned, the final scenes of the play are for Whistler to sort out and make as flowing as the rest of his play. Nothing is wrong with tension, but more provocation than Wilde’s seeming trepidation at possibly being flirted with or seduced has to be established for Whistler’s ending to match all he has shown us previously. Some reason, some comment to Mary, or some reaction to the pornographic photos she extracts from Whitman’s desk to show Wilde has to presage the Irish youth’s inexplicably abrupt coldness to his senior colleague. Though “Mickle Street” ends on an up note, with Wilde vowing to return to see Whitman when he comes to Philadelphia 10 months later, a promise the younger writer keeps, the self-conscious unease Wilde expresses in the scenes just before his exit spoil some of the grace and amity with which the majority of Whistler’s play abounds.

That majority is quite worth the savoring. Greg Wood has done a great job as a director in keeping the banter between Wilde and Whitman animated and absorbing. His production has a breezy feel that matches the quick wit and facile exchanges between the writers. (Facile in the sense of flowing and easygoing, not in the sense of simple, effortless, or expedient.) With Whistler and Wood giving the actors the words and atmosphere to evoke charm, both Buck Schirmer as Whitman and Daniel Fredrick at Wilde rise to the occasion by giving their characters full and open personalities.

These are men who see the world in remarkable ways, and they are each garrulous and convivial in sharing their observations and in learning how the other thinks and turns his thoughts to literature. Whistler provides a soupçon of brittle tension when Wilde learns that Whitman is not enamored of his output as a poet, but the young man’s displeasure or resentment is slaked somewhat by Whitman noticing his talent as a storyteller and as an artist who hasn’t yet learned to craft his words in the form that will give them the most power and longevity. Neither man can know in 1882 of Wilde’s gifts as a playwright, but they are foreshadowed in Whitman recognizing that Wilde is a superior communicator who is already widely quoted and bound to find an artistic outlet to entertain the world.

In general, the joy of “Mickle Street” lies in just hearing three people speak so eloquently and engagingly on various subjects. Whistler focuses segments of the poets’ conversation but wisely gives the great men the freedom to speak randomly about what they think, notice, or find curious. In doing so, he captures the style of most conversation, the way visits turn into an almost circular discussion of myriad topics. To Whistler’s credit, his dialogue is always crisp and to the point. Whistler impresses you with the cleverness of his content as much as Whitman or Wilde might if you had a chance encounter with them. The playwright shows you the catholicity of each writer’s interests and their overarching points of view that show why what they had to say more than 100 or 150 years ago registers today and is read with more respect and reverence than it might have been when “Leaves of Grass” or “Lady Windermere’s Fan” were new and subject to the skepticism of readers and critics who were not ready to acknowledge or welcome a new form or unique voice. Let alone to those who might object to, or make literary judgments based on, either man’s habits or lifestyle. Mary adds a continually entertaining ring of conventional ideas and orderliness as she scoffs at some of Whitman’s earthier ideas and wonders at some of Wilde’s more fanciful pronouncements, especially about beauty and its place in comparison to reality. Whistler gives Wilde and Mary an amusing passage about the purpose of a jardinière, or as Mary would call it, a vase.

“Mickle Street” begins merrily enough. The first thing you hear is Mary, presumably in a pantry offstage, distractedly and unintentionally singing one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ditties from “Patience” describing the elaborately florid Bunthorne, a.k.a. Oscar Wilde. Mary is boiling a calf’s tongue for Wilde and Whitman’s lunch and enters taking stock of the sty that passes for Whitman’s office as Whitman reads passages from a newspaper called the Camden Call about Wilde’s performance at Horticultural Hall. All is a state of preparation, with Whitman contentedly sitting at his Hesperus of a desk while Mary deals with the quandary of where to stash all the debris that litters the floors, tables, mantles, and chairs of Whitman’s lair. Andrew Thompson’s set includes armchairs and other period furniture on which audience members, I included, can watch the play. Profitt, as Mary, deftly pushes books under chairs, neatens cascaded sheets of paper, stacks other books into presentable piles, and removes signs of bygone repasts Whitman might have consumed in his office. Mary’s work could never be completed in time. It would take an army of dedicated chars to clean and straighten the mess Whitman has managed to make and live within quite satisfactorily. Thompson’s littered set certainly makes you want to run for a broom, a dust pan, Pledge, a Hoover, storage boxes, and shelving material before you feel comfortable sitting down near it, let alone opening it up to company. (I think there’s a reason why Walnut ushers tell us not to touch any of the props. Anyone the least telepathic would have to know I was thinking, “I have to clean this place!”)

On first sight, Oscar Wilde contrasts strikingly with Walt Whitman. Costumer Amanda Wolff has dressed Whitman in a coarse muslin shirt on which he’s wiped gravy and other substances. His trousers also look homespun and are held up with the most rudimentary of braces. Schirmer’s Whitman looks like a man who appreciates the beauty and bounty of nature and who writes about it and about individuality with perceptiveness and passion. He is the figure of the natural man, clothed for everyday living in a Camden house he rarely leaves and not attempting to make any impression on the reputed dandy who is imminently due at his Mickle Street door.

Enter Oscar Wilde, whom Wolff has draped in rich blue velvet that is as tactile as it is luminous. Underneath Fredrick’s Wilde wears a well-starched snow white shirt with a beautifully patterned and arranged foulard at his neck. His pants are the emerald green Whitman has read about in London journals.

Everything about Wilde is as meticulous and immaculate as everything about Whitman is slovenly and squalid. Two people could not be less alike. Even height makes a stark difference. Schirmer, though not unduly short, looks squat next to the tall, perfectly poised, perfectly postured Fredrick. Complexion and hair add even more divergence. Fredrick’s face glows with youth and with small pores that give Wilde a porcelain look while Whitman’s is decidedly more porcine, his grizzled hair looking as if he woke up without thinking of running a comb through it, his face sprouting an untrimmed beard and looking as if it hadn’t been washed lately let alone moisturized. Fredrick’s hair, meanwhile, is a lustrous auburn with waves that curl daintily in the back and one lock that hovers poetically over his right eye. The actors, Wolff, and Wood have conspired to make the two poets as distinct and disparate in appearance as is possible for two men to be. But neither judges. If Wilde notes the helter-skelter nature of Whitman’s room, he doesn’t mention it or indicate any disapproval. He is more interested in the various photographs Whitman has strewn on every surface, including the floor, the lovely paintings of men that decorate the wall, and any number of figurines, lamps, souvenirs, mementoes, and other curios that fill tables and mantles to capacity (amid papers, books, and empty cups).

Whitman, in turn, has encountered the man he expected. Wilde comes as advertised, a man of taste and refinement who can blend midnight blue with emerald green and look exquisite. Fredrick’s Wilde is polished to the tips of his fingers. He practically bursts with careful grooming and precise manners. Whitman only comments on how well Wilde is turned out to initiate a discussion on aesthetics and to talk about Wilde’s assertion that beauty for beauty’s sake should be man’s aim. Not because it’s pretty, but because it’s uplifting and grand. It elevates man from the everyday and separates him from other creatures.

Wilde will go on to make his case, and Whistler writes his argument elegantly. It amuses Schirmer’s Whitman and us while stating clearly what Wilde thinks and how he applies it to his life in general. Wilde is young, but he is not callow or inexperienced. He hasn’t achieved the artistic heights or seminal accomplishment Whitman can claim, but he is mature and dedicated to making aestheticism a style others can imitate (if not necessarily with the same perfection or panache).

Whitman takes a more serious bent. He talks about how he developed his fascination for photography during the Civil War and how what he saw on the battlefields, now captured in the daguerreotypes of Matthew Brady and others, changed his perspective and made him even more contemplative about how people will waste other people’s lives. The impetus that led to “Leaves of Grass” and the ideas that spice Wilde’s lectures and influence his work are discussed, again not as intellectual essays but in the form of two colleagues talking. Mary leavens proceedings with stories about Whitman, life in Camden, and the various things she does around the Mickle Street house. Whistler scores a coup de comedie with a marvelous ode to a tongue sandwich he writes for Wilde who waxes more than poetic when he lifts the top layer of bread from the dish Mary serves him and beholds the beautifully cooked, expertly sliced delicacy underneath. Fredrick is as adroit in delivering Wilde’s tribute as Whistler is in composing it. The passage is so good, I spent hours on Google and trolling though my complete works of Oscar Wilde and William S. Gilbert to see if could find an ode to tongue. My labor was in vain, which gives me the opportunity, and happy honor, to heap massive praise on Whistler for conceiving and executing this most brilliant and admirable piece of writing. (I also have to confess to having too good and too dallying a time reading over works by such masters of wit and sparkle). Whistler also entertains with Wilde’s reaction to homemade wine Whitman serves and of which the two men drink at least two carafes

. Watching “Mickle Street” is as pleasant and as diverting as sitting down with a volume of Whitman or Wilde. Whistler does not pretend to the artistry or far-reaching formal advances either of these writers exemplify. He knows enough about both men of letters to accomplish an entertaining, enlightening piece that touches intelligently and wittily on prominent facets of two eternal masters. Ungainly though “Mickle Street” becomes in its final scenes, Whistler has done a laudable job bringing Pantheon figures such as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde to vibrant life. The author, I know, has the talent to smooth his ending so it conforms more felicitously with the bulk of his play. All it takes is giving Wilde a more obvious motive to feel uncomfortable at what he may perceive as Whitman’s overtures or a frank discussion, of the kind we hear throughout “Mickle Street,” about the love that dare not speak its name. Whistler begins and hints at such a talk but it doesn’t develop to the level of other passages. Overall, I’d recommend “Mickle Street” and consider myself lucky to be in one of the first audiences who saw it.

Greg Wood, known more for his acting than his work behind the scenes, proved a sensitive director who paced “Mickle Street” meticulously and found the right tone for both Whitman and Wilde. (Whistler, Wood, Whitman, Wilde, Wolff, Walnut Street? Should I have invested in one of Vanna White’s W’s before this production opened?)

Buck Schirmer has been absent too long from Philadelphia stages. He gives Whitman a keenness and avid curiosity that serves this man so interested in life and in nature well. Schirmer has a constant glint in his eye that shows Whitman is always thinking and considering everything going on around him. He is an astute student of people and, at first, seems to regard Oscar Wilde as a specimen to examine, before he looks on him as a companion and a partner in the careful exploration of all that makes up human life.

Schirmer makes Whitman avid in his questioning of Wilde and fluent is his expounding of Whitman’s stories and ideas. This is a loving performance that endows Whitman, disheveled and unkempt though he and his quarters may be, as ineluctably human. Though crusty with Mary, his manner is more teasing than dismissive. With Wilde, he is both a teacher and an equal. I enjoyed seeing a Walt Whitman who had the spirit of a body electric, who was wise instead of wizened, and who communicated with zest and affability.

Daniel Fredrick is every inch Oscar Wilde. This young actor, so impressive in his ingenuously smart performance in Lantern’s “Arcadia,” follows that laudable work with this poised, detailed portrait of a self-made novelty who has the humility to apologize to Mary about a mistake he made concerning her role in Whitman’s home and who has the ease of speech and un-self-conscious refinement of manners to accept all he sees on Mickle Street and delight in being in the company of Whitman instead of being disdainful and critical of Whitman’s surroundings.

Fredrick presents Wilde as a man of stature and courage, a young person who can hold his own in any discussion and who listens as astutely and respectfully as he speaks. You see a Wilde who is accomplished and assured yet ecstatic in subtle ways on being in the presence, and around the books and everyday possessions, of a man he considers great beyond measure.

Fredrick’s is a lovely performance that exudes grace and breeding while also showing Wilde’s capacity for fellowship. His faux pas acknowledged, he is as charming and respectful to Mary as he is to Whitman. Wilde’s poise, as established by Fredrick, is the reason his sudden agitation with Whitman is so stark. Fredrick’s Wilde has a way of taking all in his stride and accepting matters and situations for what they are. He conveys an agile mind, a nimble tongue, and limber bearing. He is everything you expect from Oscar Wilde from your own study of the man and from what Whitman and Mary glean from the Camden Call at the top of Whistler’s play.

Fredrick’s turn bodes well for the future of Philadelphia theater. His next role is back at Lantern where he’ll appear in an adaptation of Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of Baskervilles” (not to be confused with Ken Ludwig’s take on the Sherlock Holmes classic in “Baskerville” coming soon to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre.)

Sabrina Profitt is always refreshing as Mary. She endows the character with no-nonsense wisdom and an air of common existence that makes Whitman and Wilde a wonder of sorts. Mary’s hallmarks are practicality and common sense, and Profitt conveys those traits well. She also shows the amusement Mary gets from being around Whitman. Even when she’s frustrated with his individual way of thinking, or disgusted by his sloppiness and poor hygiene — She constantly reminds him to wash his hands when before he leaves the washroom. — she obviously admires the genius that makes him different from others she meets in Camden.

Profitt also has great timing and an instinctive delivery of comic lines. She makes Mary into a delight whose every entrance causes welcome anticipation of dry, almost dour, humor.

Amanda Wolff’s costumes and Andrew Thompson’s heap of a set have received due praise. They are well conceived and well executed. Zachary Beatty-Brown’s sound design cannily includes the rattle of a streetcar going by when Wilde opens the Mickle Street door and captures many household noises. Charles S. Reece’s lighting follows the day as it goes from late morning to mid-afternoon.

“Mickle Street” runs through Sunday, March 8, at the Walnut Independence Studio on 3, located on the third floor of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org  

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