Souled to Hell

In Tom Walker, a new play at the New Theatre, a very old story is given a modern twist. The Devil appears to the title character, dupes same into a hellish bargain, and runs off with poor Tom's soul. Playwright John Strand has performed a similar act of piracy: He takes an obscure nineteenth-century sketch of a story by Washington Irving, itself an Americanized take on the Faust legend, and runs away with it. The result is a modernist spin on a classic that's charming, if a bit muddled.

The basic situation is Irving's. In Colonial New England, ne'er-do-well Tom lives with his unhappy wife Rose, forever dreaming up pie-in-the-sky plans with his drinking buddy but never managing to get anywhere. Tom is a frustrated everyman, blaming his troubles on everyone around him and taking responsibility for nothing. One day he encounters a black woodsman in the nearby swamp, a devilish trickster who offers unimagined riches for his soul. Tom agrees, gaining the Devil's fingerprint burned onto his forehead. Tom returns home, tells his wife what happened, then hesitates before ultimately agreeing to the Devil's bargain.

Soon he's a rich moneylender who must give the devil a percentage of the take. He's so powerful he can compel a desperately poor widow to surrender herself to him before he loans her money. Ultimately, of course, Tom must come through with his side of the bargain and the Devil gets his due. But that's only the first act.

What follows is completely Strand's invention, as Tom discovers himself in a very surprising sort of Hell and vows to take revenge for his devilish deception. Though Strand makes Tom Walker his own, he's close in spirit to Irving's writing style. In much of his work Irving sought to strip away the American penchant for cheap, self-congratulatory sentiment. Irving's vision of America often depicted the monstrous greed of the European settlers (his story, The Devil & Tom Walker, taken from an anthology called Tales of A Traveller, is part of a selection entitled "The Money Diggers"). He kept reminding his readers of the settlers' relentless racism and genocide against the native tribes, and made a point of depicting his early American characters as unheroic, likable but flawed.

Strand takes up Irving's causes. His play rambles through poor farmsteads, barrooms, and prison ships, populated by Hogarthian outsiders: fugitives, thieves, drunks, charlatans, and paupers. Strand then takes Irving one step further. In Irving's tale the Devil is a "great black man ... neither negro nor Indian," but Strand's devil is very much a black man, with an Afro-Caribbean accent. The "black devil" representation seems appalling at first, but as the tale unfolds, this Devil's history and plans become clear, even empathetic.

Strand also creates a storyteller, the Devil's daughter Cora, who carefully spins out her tale like a campfire ghost story. She initially seems merely a dramatic device, but as the plot thickens Cora is revealed to be quite different than what she first appeared, and her reliability is called into question. Strand also tweaks the character of Tom himself, whose second-act journey brings him to a depth and dimension far more interesting than in Irving's original. Irving's tale was a simple cautionary yarn, little different from the Faust archetype. But in Strand's hands Irving's story of greed and guilt is given a sequel of revenge and redemption.

As a stage play, this Tom Walker is delightful entertainment, full of comedic high jinks and theatricality. These elements are exploited fully by a first-rate cast. Stephen Neal makes Tom a likable lowlife, forever dodging responsibility for his own failings. Neal does a good job of tracking Tom's personal transformation, from drunkard to victim to revenger and ultimately toward a surprising maturity.

The rest of the cast is also in fine form. Lisa Morgan, a New Theatre mainstay, is terrific in her dual roles as Tom's termagant wife and the Widow Baine, whose victimization by Tom takes a surprising emotional turn. Morgan's natural ease, coupled with an understated comedic sense, gives Neal excellent support. It's especially telling when Neal and Morgan as husband and wife appear to have little chemistry together, yet when Neal meets Morgan as moneylender and victim, sparks fly. Ken Clement, also a versatile performer, turns in an anthology of hilarious cameos, aided and abetted by another company regular, David Perez-Ribada, as his sidekick.

Robert Strain, who delivered a memorable performance last season as an imprisoned American diplomat in the Mosaic's Someone To Watch Over Me, makes for a commanding Woodsman, whose devilish demeanor masks a secret agenda. Tara Vodihn Reid is properly spooky as the Woodsman's haunted daughter, Cora, but the performance seems a bit calculated, especially in comparison with the loosey-goosey comic delivery of some of the other members of the company.

Director David Mann opts for a lighthearted, inventive staging, serving up a fairy tale for adults. Mann, who recently appeared in the title role of the New Theatre's Hamlet, is himself a versatile, resourceful actor, and here he builds on those strengths. There's a nice sense of playfulness to the ensemble, as everyone seems to be having a good time. And Mann's use of Israel Aragon as an ever-present fiddler adds some lively charm.

But though this Tom Walker is lively, it doesn't quite get airborne. The play's many plot turns are not always clear in the staging, and the decision to avoid any sound effects or other music beyond Aragon's violin limits the potential to manipulate tempo and mood. Mann also fails to offer a clear directorial vision to Strand's text: Though the story careens through a series of American archetypes and issues, what all this means seems to be left to the audience. Certainly the production lacks many clear visual cues. Michelle Cumming's workaday set, mostly an American Primitive mural and some birch trees, lacks much individuality -- it could be the setting for any number of Colonial-era plays.

The lack of ideological focus is a familiar trap of guest directors. In all probability Mann was handed the task of directing a pre-chosen play, and while his staging is certainly entertaining, it isn't striking. Mann doesn't seem to have a burning need to tell this particular story. That said, he does a solid job in his first directorial outing for this company. And it's another solid step for the New Theatre, which clearly aims to expand and deepen its artistic pool.

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Ronald Mangravite