A Thousand Words, premiered by Forward Theater Company Friday night in Overture Center's Promenade Hall, deftly bounces between past and present and themes of art, friendship and art-world conflict. Written by local playwright (and Forward communications director) Gwendolyn Rice, it imagines what might transpire if a previously undiscovered cache of Walker Evans photographs was found among possessions of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba.
Evans ranks as one of the 20th century's greatest photographers, and his images of the Great Depression are seared into the national consciousness. Yet Rice's play is not a stiff, reverential period piece. In fact, the scenes set in the 1930s -- as Evans sets out for Kansas with a young woman writer as part of a Farm Security Administration project to document the lives of rural people -- are the liveliest.
It would be strange to call A Thousand Words a buddy comedy, but much of its appeal stems from the dynamic between Evans (Josh Aaron McCabe) and Shirley Hughes (Molly Rhode), who dreams of making it as a writer. Thrown together by circumstance, they banter and spar, yet tenderness emerges. And in an unforced way, Shirley learns from Evans, who was famous for capturing people in unguarded moments. "People are interesting all on their own," he says. "Don't judge, just describe."
McCabe plays Evans with looseness and ease -- the photographer is a living, breathing person, not a name destined for the history books. As the fictional Shirley, Rhode is a high point of the play. Her face seems straight out of a 1930s movie, and Hyewon Park's costume designs complete the look. There's a poignancy to the arc of Shirley's story (details of which I won't spoil) that I found the most satisfying element of the play.
The play's present-day scenes are perhaps not as fully worked out. American Players Theatre favorite and Forward advisory company member Sarah Day plays Sally Quinn, a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art who is in Kansas in preparation for a show of quilts by the women of Garden City.
Sally's boss back in New York is Brian (T. Stacy Hicks), a type-A philistine who cares more about hawking tote bags at 50 bucks a pop in the gift shop than acting fairly to acquire the newly discovered Evans photographs. Hicks' performance as the museum honcho is a bit cartoonish (as is his depiction of another character, a mud-caked Kansas farmer); he could stand to dial it back a few notches.
It also seems unlikely that a museum would let its agenda be driven by knickknacks. While gift shops and their endless supply of mugs and T-shirts are ubiquitous, there are many reasons for that, such as waning public support for cultural institutions.
Sally is more nuanced; she cares about the art, but also has a mercenary and patronizing side, especially in her dealings with Andrea, a young woman in Garden City who runs a small marketing firm.
While I found the Depression-era scenes more successful than the modern-day ones, the alternating structure of A Thousand Words keeps things moving swiftly, propelling the action forward. Directed by Forward artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, the production (which moves to Milwaukee Chamber Theatre after its Overture run) is entertaining, thought-provoking and a very welcome chance to see new work.