Following its debut at Louisville’s 1996 Human Festival of Plays, Jon Marans’ two-character play Old Wicked Songs went on to a string of productions culminating in a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.
By 1999 Chicago had its first production of Old Wicked Songs at the Apple Tree Theater, starring Hill Street Blues’ Daniel J. Travanti. The Tribune’s Chris Jones thought the play “an overly deft amalgam of Master Class and Visiting Mr. Green,… but the drama increases in richness and thematic complexity as the evening progresses. Its moral position and celebration of the arts’ ability to overcome real-world suffering becomes increasingly appealing.” New York critics had mixed feelings about the play. The Times’ critic found the play “veering toward excessive cuteness”, while Newsday found the play “falling into overt schematic patterns.”
Mr. Marans’ play does not follow the classic dramatic form elucidated by structure teacher Syd Field and others – a series of actions organized around two plot points of reversal. Instead Mr. Marans invents a new dramatic form based on the composer Robert Schumann’s song cycle, also the central theme of Old Wicked Songs. Marans had studied Schumann’s Dichterliebe in Austria, and wanted his play to embody that important personal experience.
The play is set in Austria amid the discovery that the 1986 presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim had been a Nazi. Stephan Hoffman (the eager David Hathway), a 25-year-old American piano prodigy without the old zest for performing, finds himself assigned to the classes of Professor Josef Mashkan (the enigmatic Michael Joseph Mitchell), an elderly and financially strapped teacher of vocal performance. In the course of the pair’s time together (in an office designed as an homage to Robert Schumann by Carl Ulazek, featuring Mary O’Dowd’s lovely set dressing and properties), we learn very little of the characters’ backstories. Mr. Marans climaxes his play with the revelations that each man’s life has been complicated by hiding his Jewishness. Drained by their confessions and repentance, the characters collapse into one another’s arms, purged, and ready to face life.
Director Timothy Gregory strives to keep the audience of non-Schumann experts from floundering in the Schumannesque structured play, top-heavy with big ideas – the responsibility of teacher to student and student to teacher; the arts’ ability to assuage suffering; the need for the artist to experience both great joy and sadness.
The Provision Theater provides Chicagoans with an opportunity to expand one’s theatrical palate in the presence of the wonderful music of Robert Schumann.