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Review: UMD offers brilliant adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Main Street’

The show runs through Oct. 8 at the Mainstage Theatre on the UMD campus.

DNT review
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On Friday night a new staging of Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” adapted and directed by Tom Isbell had its World Premiere on UMD’s mainstage. This is a brilliant adaptation of the novel, creatively staged, and providing every cast member multiple moments to shine on stage.

Opening night was woefully under-attended. This review is out to change that.

Lewis, who lived in Duluth in the early 1940s, was the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for literature. In his 1920 novel “Main Street,” Carol Milford Kennicott collides with the small-town mentality of the folks of Gopher Prairie (a.k.a. Lewis’s hometown of Sauk Centre).

As soon as Thressa Schultz appears on stage in her gorgeous green dress, you know this is her story. In the novel Carol starts off as a bit of a ditz, but Isbell fast-forwards through that part and Schulz gives us a Carol, who is a shade smarter and more aware than almost anyone she meets, which is what makes her story tragic.

Schultz is also the show’s choreographer, which manifests mainly in Carol’s interpretive dances at the start and end of the plays. But I also found a large segment of Schultz’s portrayal of Carol is choreographed. Over the course of the play, Schultz’s hands trace her character’s downward spiral as she goes from hands on waist, to hands on hips, to hands on her thighs.

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Whether this was conscious or not, it really worked. Carol spends a lot of time suffering in silence or speaking but hiding her true thoughts, leaving her to communicate non-verbally what is being unspoken to the audience. You cannot take your eyes off of her.

Like Jane Austen, a lot of the good stuff in the novel is in the descriptions and not the dialogue. Isbell’s solution is to create a Reporter, played by Olivia Nelson, who is not merely a substitute for the Stage Manager in “Our Town.”

While the style might be similar, especially with the scenic design by Curtis Phillips being a butcher block square stage and dark green chairs in perpetual motion, the substance of the two plays are diametric opposites. “Main Street” is the harsh black-and-white counterpart to the red, white and blue “Our Town.”

Additionally, Nelson is always around the stage when she is not on it, providing constant editorial comment through a series of looks and headshots, even engaging members of the audience to ensure they are aware of the absurdity of the action.

Isbell’s script and staging creates more of a theatrical montage than a series of scenes, until the several significant scenes making up the play’s climax.

There is humor sprinkled throughout the show, often in the droll interplay between the Reporter and the characters. But even more than the blackout where the “wolves” go after the “sheep” at Carol’s housewarming party, the comic highlight is the meeting of the women of Gopher Prairie to study English Literature.

These women would find the CliffsNotes versions of Shakespeare too lengthy to crack open, and the four distinct ways the characters played by Emily Bolles, Kaitlyn Callahan, Zsofi Eastvold, and Cindy Hansen get laughs are truly hysterical.

The dramatic highpoint is the forceful and compelling speech Jack Lieder gives as Dr. Will Kennicott to try and save his marriage. It not only justifies his life’s work, but eviscerates the would-be young artist who has captured his wife’s attention. Lieder totally convinced me his character deserved better than he was getting from Carol.

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Most of the cast play multiple roles. In a nice little casting twist, Eastvold plays both the false and true kindred spirits Carol encounters.

Trevor Hendrix brings a necessary earnestness to Erik Valborg, Tanner Longshore invests Miles Bjornstam with a sense of simple honesty, Deklan Boren finds new ways to make most of his characters instantly unlikeable, and Ben Hanzsek-Brill comes up with a captivating cadence when he talks as Guy Pollock.

I have seen several original theatrical productions in Duluth. This one deserves to be performed on other stages in both college and community theaters.

If you go

What: “Main Street,” adapted by Tom Isbell from the novel by Sinclair Lewis

Where: Marshall Performing Arts Center, Mainstage Theatre on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth

Date: Sep. 30-Oct. 1, Oct. 5-8 at 7:30 pm. Oct. 2 & 8 at 2:00 p.m.

Tickets: $10 students; $20 senior/UMD Faculty/Staff/Veteran; $25 adult.

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Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the Duluth News Tribune.

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