“Bookends,” the story of friendship broken and rediscovered, recently made its world debut at the historic Walnut Street Theatre building. Written by Ohio native M.J. Feely, the production recounts a successful director and writer team split by the politics and outrage that surrounded the Congressional hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s.
Held in the intimate confines of the 80-seat Independence Studio, tucked away in a third floor nook of the theatre, the story features highly successful director Jackson Kale (Warren Kelley) and veteran playwright Matthew Burke (Greg Wood), along with his simple, school teacher-wife, Nora (Ellen Tobie). Jackson is the hottest director going, while his former partner, Matthew, just finished a new play after a six-year hiatus. The audience is to learn why they split and if they can work together again, with their friendship hanging tenuously on their 13-year feud.
Directed by Walnut-veteran Tom Markus, the opening night performance, as well as Feely’s play, seemed altogether ordinary, as its highs were inconsistent and its lows were hackneyed.
Set mostly in and around the Burke household, a Connecticut retreat from their past on Broadway, it’s tough to take another New York City-themed premise and Feely’s allusions to our nation’s most artistically-cited city seem forced.
To manufacture truth, character Matthew Burke said, “You give [people] a lie and you tell them again and again.”
Feely’s underlying theme of “Bookends” is set. However, using historical memory to tacitly criticize the current administration, as Feely seemingly attempts to do, has ceased to be smart or creative.
Still, the objective of “Bookends” is to convince the audience to become invested in the two men enough to hope they overcome their stubbornness and rediscover their collective success.
In time, Warren Kelley and Greg Wood, who portray the ‘bookends’ of the three-person cast, bring the audience in with a believable passion that seemed lacking in the performance’s opening. Their rehashing of their appearances before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951 is the play’s dramatic height and the point at which the performance finds its groove.
Timid beginning or not, any excuse to walk into the Walnut Street Theatre, the oldest theater in the country, is a good one. A national historic landmark and the Official State Theater of Pennsylvania, the Walnut, with 56,000 season ticket holders, also happens to be the most subscribed theatre company in the world.
No one can know Philadelphia without having known 825 Walnut St., Temple students included. Moreover, it is hard to go wrong in seeing a performance in the tiny Independence, a sidebar of the world famous Walnut. Still, in the end, without much in the way of memorable, the greatest asset of “Bookends” might be its location.
Christopher Wink can be reached at Cwink32@yahoo.com.