C.S. Whitcomb’s Parnassus on Wheels, which is getting its world premiere production at Lakewood Theatre Company and is an early entry in the Fertile Ground Festival of New Work, is an adaptation of Christopher Morley’s 1917 novel of the same name, a robust comedy of incident that straddles a wavering line between mere whimsy and genuine charm. It’s one of those strange, small, individualistic American literary eccentricities that manages to be both innocent and slyly knowing, the sort of outside-the-loop novel you almost certainly didn’t read in college English class but, once having discovered, most likely recall with a smile of affection. It seems frivolous, escapist, a bit of a lark, and so it is. But it also has surprising depths: a little more meat on its bones and it might be mistaken for something by William Saroyan.
Parnassus (named after the sacred mountain above the Oracle of Delphi, a place of mystery and knowledge) is the tale of two middle-aged misfits who slowly find each other through the miracle of books. (Yes, the story comes from a time when Americans believed in the edifying powers of learning and education, things worth supporting with a hard-earned dollar or two).
Helen McGill is a practical, unglamorous farm woman, bound to the chickens who produce the product for her egg business and to the kitchen and farmhouse that she maintains for herself and her older brother, Andrew, who had a good sensible farm head on his shoulders until he started writing books about the glories of rural life and became an unlikely best-selling author, thus freeing himself from many of the routine chores and arduous exertions that make the glories of the rural life possible. This is a point of contention and resentment for Helen, who must pick up a lot of slack on the farm to keep the enterprise going. Not to put too fine a point on it, Helen has decided that, considering their incidental yet semi-catastrophic effect on her own life, she Hates Books.
Roger Mifflin (or “The Professor”) is in the bookselling business, traveling the countryside in a horse-drawn caravan that is at once his home and the handy fold-out container for his merchandise – a sort of bookmobile on the hoof. Roger’s been traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard in his caravan, which he calls Parnassus, for a good eight years, accompanied by his horse, Pegasus, and his dog, Bock (short for Boccaccio, the 14th century author of The Decameron). He loves the life, but he’s itching to settle down: He wants to head back to Brooklyn, where his brother lives, and write his own book about the adventures he’s had. And to do that he wants to sell his business – book, horse, and barrel – to Andrew Mifflin, who as a prominent book man himself, Roger figures, won’t be able to resist.
This idea shocks and angers Helen. She’s sure Andrew, who’s off at the moment gallivanting on one of his hoboing “research trips,” would leap at the opportunity and abandon her once again to run the farm on her own. Aghast at the possibility, she buys the outfit herself, spending $400 she’d been saving to buy a Ford motor car, and heads off determined to have an adventure of her own. Roger tags along to show her the ropes for a few days, and – well, let’s just say adventures ensue, among them an attack by a gang of ruffians, a horrific train wreck, a few nights in the slammer, and a helpful hand from the state governor.
Whitcomb’s script is largely faithful to the narrative of Morley’s slim novel, and director Stephanie Mulligan has pulled together a nicely compatible cast led by Amanda Soden as Helen and Orion Bradshaw as Roger, with Jeff Gorham as the literary farmer Andrew, a slyly funny Don Stewart Burns in a variety of roles, and an ensemble including Daphne Dossett, Chris Forrer, Maggie MacKenzie, and Luke Wyngarden playing an assortment of farmers, townsfolk, bank clerks, robbers, and the like. John Gerth’s scenic design is dominated by a marvelously realized re-creation of the caravan Parnassus, and Marychris Mass’s costumes are, as usual, smartly chosen and evocative of the styles of the story’s time.
Bradshaw as Roger is a bit of a bantam, as he should be, a spiky little fellow of learning who’s not afraid to put up his dukes, and Soden is forthright and downright heroic as the emergent feminist Helen, who sometimes seems more Susan B. Anthony than Ma Kettle. Yet the pacing of the show is static, as if the unseen Pegasus were trotting in place.
A couple of things contribute to that, I think. First, Whitcomb has lessened the suspense by making it plain almost from the beginning that Helen’s besotted by the Parnassus, and that she and Roger are besotted by each other. In Morley’s novel, both realizations come only gradually – almost belatedly. Helen hates the whole idea of the book caravan, and buys it only to keep it out of her brother’s hands: It’s more a matter of self-preservation than striking out on her own. Then, slowly, as she listens to Roger talk about the power of books and watches him deal with his customers almost as a missionary of the written word, her world begins to turn. Neither feminist independence nor romantic love arrives fully formed. They grow, slowly, together.
Second, in the novel this growing into love is conveyed mainly through Helen’s thoughts as she narrates the story. That, not the horse Pegasus, is what truly pulls the tale forward, and it’s so interior (though she describes it briskly) that it’s hard to convey through quick dialogue. A little less emphasis on the physical journey and a little more on the gradual realization of the life journey, patiently unspooled, could add a subtlety that would lead to greater dramatic impact. This is a tale worth telling – it’s a delightful, if fragile, literary tall tale of a story – and Whitcomb has got its onstage journey well on its way. If she revisits the script, I’d suggest taking things slow and easy. Don’t toss Helen and Roger together too soon. Let them come to little realizations about each other. Don’t give away too much. Let the story tease itself out. After all, it already has a storybook ending.
C.S. Whitcomb’s Parnassus on Wheels continues through Feb. 11 at the Lakewood Center for the Arts, 368 S. State St., Lake Oswego. Ticket and schedule information here.