On Portland’s poet

Celebrating Longfellow’s words
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  October 31, 2007
ARMS AND THE MAN: Playwright Daniel Noel as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow: A Life in Words | by Daniel Noel | Directed by Ron Botting | Starring Daniel Noel, Mark Honan, and Sally Wood | Produced by the Portland Stage Company’s Studio Series, in the Portland Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theater | through Nov 18 | 207.774.0465
It’s a testament to much of what’s good about America that one of her first and most popular poets had such reverence, and such affection, for so many of her stories. From the French-Canadian epic of Evangeline to the Great Lakes legend of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reveled early in what is now known as the “multi-cultural” dynamism of our nation. Portland has feted its native poet with particular fervor this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, and now opens an original theatrical celebration with Longfellow: A Life in Words. Produced as the inaugural show of Portland Stage Company’s professional Studio Series, Longfellow is an intelligent, elegant, and loving portrait, written by and starring local playwright and actor Daniel Noel.

It’s a testament to the esteem the playwright holds for this subject and era that Longfellow is composed entirely of the words of the poet and his contemporaries. For more than four years, Noel has been busy in the libraries of Portland, Bowdoin, and Cambridge, poring through and culling from voluminous historical documents. He has woven that material — which includes excerpts from Longfellow’s letters and journals, as well as his verse — into a narrative that spans the scope of the poet’s life, starting with his youngest days of frolicking around Deering Oaks.

Along the way, we meet a rich variety of Longfellow’s intimates and acquaintances — his two wives, both of whom he outlived; his longtime friend and abolitionist senator Charles Sumner; such eminent literati as Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In a graceful stroke of theatrical economy, Noel has written all of these dozens of characters for two ensemble actors; director Ron Botting’s impeccable casting gives us an excellent pair: Mark Honan (veteran of PSC, the Theater Project, and the Stage at Spring Point) and Sally Wood (who has done much fine work up in Monmouth). Responsible for much of the pace and movement of the show, they have a fine sense of balance, and shift the tone nimbly between humor and gravity in support of Noel in the title role.

On Anita Stewart’s lean, elegant set of Victorian furniture before a clear white hearth and wall (which doubles as a screen for period projections — some poignant, some a bit superfluous) all three do a marvelous job delivering the written language of the day, rendering it passionate, colorful, and even playful. And Noel has chosen some fine passages to move us through the poet’s life: In his youthful, wild-oat-sowing days in Europe, he notes with awe that “you would not believe the carryings on there are here” (including men with monkeys!). Of his rise to literary fame we hear early fan mail from Hawthorne, as well as of a less renowned correspondent who requests an acrostic love poem for his sweetheart. We hear of Longfellow’s musings on the American character (“a composite one”), the atrocities of slavery, and the secession of the Southern states. We’re privy to his procrastination on Evangeline, his charming observations about his children, and, overall, a childlike warmth and fascination for so much in his life.

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