Watching Walt Whitman’s Secret is a bit like eating paper—but the paper is often tasty.
In Sean O’Leary’s script, which he based on Vancouver author George Fetherling’s novel, the celebrated nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman is nearing the end of his life. Horace, his devoted amanuensis, takes care of him, and Anne, who is in love with Horace, joins the circle. While these three meet in the concrete world, Walt is also visited by visions of a handsome young man named Pete, who was once his companion.
Two central questions drive the plot and the answers to both are obvious. The first question is: In his personal life, has Walt ever known the transcendent love that he celebrates in volumes such as Leaves of Grass? The answer, in the shapely form of Pete, is right in front of us. Although there’s an academic debate about just how homosexual the real-life Walt Whitman was, this script clearly takes the position that he was as gay as a weekend at the beach. So, narratively speaking, there’s little tension in Horace and Anne’s conjectures about the nature of Walt’s love life.
Then there’s the second question: Is Horace gay? You figure it out. Horace worships Walt. When Anne kisses him and declares her love, he shrinks away.
As these dramatically stillborn inquiries circle, the play goes on tangents of literary analysis. Anne chides Walt for revisions that he has made to his work. He concedes that she might have a point and opines that his amendments are the result of the changing perspective that comes with age. These exchanges are not what you’d call dramatic action.
Nonetheless, Walt Whitman’s Secret held my attention. Partly that’s because, in this interpretation from the frank theatre company, the script is beautifully produced and performed.
Adele Noronha makes an exquisite Anne. Her tone is conversational and simple. Emotionally, she’s transparent and responsive. And Noronha grasps Anne’s intelligence without being flashy about it. If you want to witness the rewards of understatement, watch this performance. I also particularly enjoyed Conrad Belau’s Horace. Horace negotiates some tricky emotional terrain and, thanks to Belau, I bought every inch of it.
As Walt, Tom Pickett takes on the almost impossible task of playing a charismatic genius. Although I would have welcomed more depth in Pickett’s performance and I found his line readings deliberate at times, there’s an underlying credibility, sensuality, and openheartedness about it. Kamyar Pazandeh’s realization of Pete is refreshingly frank and simple, and his voice is beautiful. A small observation: under Jack Paterson’s direction, Pickett and Pazendeh approach the sexual interactions between their characters with reverence; a little more playfulness—even wickedness—might help.
The physical production is gorgeous: the stark white walls of Michelle Allard’s set, the expressionistic flourishes of Itai Erdal’s lighting, and the wit of Carmen Alatorre’s costumes, which are all embellished with the poet’s penmanship. Dorothy Dittrich’s sound design is subtly persuasive. And director Paterson juxtaposes the naturalism of the dialogue-driven scenes with movement sequences in which the characters almost dance as if possessed by their unexpressed longing.
With the redundant questions answered, the script finally frees itself in the second act: with the plot in motion at last, the play’s exploration of love and responsibility, truth and self-deception are much more successfully embodied.
The frank theatre company deserves huge credit for taking on such an ambitious project. The results aren’t entirely successful but, even in Act 1, I was always engaged, and much of Act 2 is compelling.