This week the Tufts Arena offers their best production so far this season, a splendid rendition of "Sing Out, Sweet Land." Walter Kerr's allegorical eroica, extolling man's universal quest for freedom, couched in specific American terms, is a kind of musical biography of the American idiom. A cavalcade of American folk songs from the colonial days to Gershwin interspersed with a narrative biography of American history chronicle the development of the American idiom.
Kerr's episodic plot, eclipsing American history, is strung together by Barna-by Goodchild, a delightfully Dionysian scamp who, condemned to the stocks for frolicking while a Puritan, is liberated by Charity and wanders through the next three hundred years of American history. Goodchild's continuous reincarnation as a succession of American myth-men symbolizes the dynamic forces behind the building of America and his wanderings parallel the geographic expansion of the U.S.A.
The Tufts cast deserves real credit for its performance. Uncoordinated until now, it clicks crisply; and the machinery of America, moving slowly at first, warms and speeds up as the play progresses. The play's farrago of dramatic styles, songs, dances and persons is difficult to harmonize, but the loosely knit structure of the play is bound into a tightly cohesive knot, creating a final fluidity. Leads and choruses maintain the spritely and varying rhythms of American life throughout. The same persons flying-shuttled in and out of different roles, weaving the loom of America. Robert Dargie as Uncle Sam at the piano punctuates the performance with robust renditions of American songs, while guitars, banjos, and violins mute the strains of the nation's soul. Scenery and props were appropriately simple, and agilely handled. The floor was musicarnival and the lighting was virtuoso, creating a variety of moods. Special credit goes to Joy Pranulis, the one-woman-wonder who designed and made 110 period costumes in one week, providing a paisleyed pictorial pastiche.
Gardner Tillson was excellent; as Barnaby Goodchild, the embodiment of changing America, he shoulders a Sisyphian role which is continually taxing and demands a variety of talents, all of which he gives it. With ease and flexibility, he imbues the role with its dynamic symbolism, as limbs akimbo, he burgeons the ever-expanding American frontier.
Fred Blais, on his toes at last, portrays admirably the spirit of repressive convention lurking through the ages. Whereas Tillson Ariels the Dionysic Goodchild, Blais Calabans the Apollonic and parsimonious Parson Killjoy.
Constance Walch portrays imaginatively a succession of American women tempting or guiding Goodchild. Fred Norris, Robert Alukonis, Henry Franck, Jane Hanley, Betty Black, Susan Woodruff are also commendable.
Walter Kerr is a prolific writer not well enough recognized in the American theatre. A master craftsman, his Herculean fetus spawned in New England's Zeusian thigh is a lusty, virile creation. He manifests a through knowledge of dramatic styles from Aeschylus to Arthur Miller, and a comprehensive knowledge of the character and literature of each period of American development.
At a time when contemporary American drama consists largely of stillborn carbon copies of Ibsen, Shaw and Chek- hov, Kerr departs from realism, naturalism and contemporary social problems. Turning to Aristophanic comedy and American history, he weaves a very refreshing and unusual play that injects new life and variety into the Iceberg American theatre, and which, baring the bedrock of American ideals and tradition, reveals the strains of a nation's soul through song, fables and poesy, and so utterly avoids didactic realism.
Yet Kerr's conception is more than American; it is universal, and without beginning or end. Kerr's Goodchild, while an American Odysseus and Natty Bumpo, is also a race-memory of the desire for freedom inherent in man's soul from the dimly-remembered dawn of pre-recorded history. Goodchild's successful conquering of his own soul and youthful vigor symbolize the constant reincarnation of man's unquenchable spirit; the white dove of his lofty aspirations columns heavenward, linking Classic and American aspirations, and those of all eternity