Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” We can’t help but wonder if F. Scott Fitzgerald had this in mind when he created the fabulously successful, fatally flawed Jay Gatsby.
The Hilberry Theatre’s current stage adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” distills the novel into its essential elements– which gives it a potency that brings key themes into sharp relief. This “Gatsby” is the only authorized stage interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, adapted by Simon Levy, and it is true to the story, language and symbolic themes most of us first encountered in high school.
This Hilberry production, directed by longtime Wayne State faculty member Blair Anderson, is remarkable in that the scenic design (by Sarah Pearline) is as much a part of the story as Gatsby, Nick, Daisy and the other characters who people Fitzgerald’s profound novel. Positioned at the focal point of the stage is a giant Art Deco edifice that is quickly revealed to be the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. It is the symbol of Gatsby’s dream, just out of reach, but (he is certain) getting closer every day. Panoramic screens are arched above both sides of the stage, and projected images on these surfaces serve to place us – accurately and aesthetically – in the various settings required by the story. It is across these screens that we recognize the opulence of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s home; it is here we cross into the grim valley of ashes where Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, dwells under the billboard with the unsleeping eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The graphics seem to suggest the absolute despair of T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” without any distracting literary allusions. And in one of the most eerie moments of the play, those omniscient eyes seem to peer out from the green lamp, foreshadowing not only the death of Gatsby, but of the American Dream itself.
“Bringing to life what has been called ‘the defining novel of the Twenties’ is a delightful challenge,” says Anderson. “Fitzgerald wrote that ‘it was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess…’ Following World War I, the story is less about a time and more about money and the possibilities of buying a new future, of recapturing the innocent love before the horrors of the war, and of replacing disillusionment through hedonistic excess.”
Anderson opens both halves of the show with rousing Charleston dance numbers that show off the period costumes by John Woodland. More significantly, this brief focus on the world of glitzy excess frames up the superficial aspects of the story in a way that lets us zoom deeper into the real tragedy that follows. Gatsby’s obsession with obscene wealth may have begun as a strategy to win Daisy Buchannan, but at some point the man himself is lost in the grand gesture. His absolute infatuation with Daisy only throws light on her imperfections. Nick sees it. But Gatsby clings to the belief that with enough money he can make everything right—class differences, past mistakes, illegal activities and even manslaughter. In the end, we see that Gatsby is still an interloper in the world of old money. And with the post WWI American dream in tatters, rampant materialism and sexual promiscuity are a consolation prize only the rich can enjoy, while the rest of the world cleans up after them. Jay Gatsby is a Jazz-Age Faust who sells his soul for a shallow, capricious and self-absorbed rich girl.
The play ends with Nick delivering one of the finest closing lines in literary history. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”
Anderson’s cast delivers a strong ensemble performance. Santino Craven gives us a Jay Gatsby whose self-promotion to an elegant man-of-means offers glimpses of the farm boy concealed beneath the articulate banter and parroted bon homie of the polo set. Devri Chism is Daisy Buchanan, the southern minx who loves Gatsby, but is addicted to her own comforts—social, emotional and physical. Michael Manocchio is Nick Carraway, Daisy’s cousin, and perhaps the only likeable character in the story. Nick is always reminding Gatsby and Daisy that he is a working stiff. But it’s not only Nick’s modest income that keeps him from fitting in – it is his essential honesty – his inability to embrace the denial-du-jour of his “social superiors” – that makes it impossible for him to become one of them. Manocchio gives us a Nick Carraway whose aim is true.
The strong Hilberry cast also includes: Breayre Tender (Jordan Baker), Michael Phillip Thomas (Tom Buchanan), Tiffany Michelle Thompson (Myrtle Wilson), Ernest Bentley (George Wilson), Brandon A. Wright (Meyer Wolfsheim), Mary Sansone (Lucille McKee), Kyle Mitchell Johnson (Chester McKee), Wesley Cady (Mrs. Michaells), and Cody Robison (Policeman).
Director Blair Anderson is supported by a production team that includes: Allison Baker (Stage Manager), Ryan P. Jones (Assistant Stage Manager), Sarah Pearline (Scenic and Projection Designer), John Woodland (Costume Designer), Thomas Schraeder (Lighting Designer), Brian Dambacher (Technical Director & Sound Designer), Mario Raymond (Assistant Sound Designer), Emily Willemse of Dearborn Heights (Properties Master), Thomas Libertiny (Master Electrician), Jill Dion (Choreographer), Wayne David Parker (Fight Choreographer), Michael J. Barnes (Dialect Coach) and JP Hitesman (Publicist).
You can catch this fine production of “The Great Gatsby” at the Hilberry Theatre, on the campus of Wayne State University, where it runs on and off in repertory with other shows. Check the WSU theatre calendar for dates and times. To purchase tickets or for more information, call (313) 577-2972 or visit the WSU theatre department’s website.