Racism and camaraderie in 1963

Columnist Max McCormack says Eric Conger’s script needs more urgency.

Columnist Max McCormack says Eric Conger’s script needs more urgency.

University life has changed tremendously in the last century. Today, college students must face the conflicts of their time and learn how to deal with them. The world premiere of The Eclectic Society, which opened Jan. 19 at the Walnut Street Theatre, addresses issues of keeping tradition in a progressing world. Picture 13

Eric Conger’s play is about social change, but beneath that theme, there’s an honest desire to keep things comfortable.

Under the direction of Ed Herendeen, The Eclectic Society follows a fraternity of the same name during the fall of 1963. The lives of the young white academics are turned upside down with the arrival of Darrell Freeman, an African-American scholarship student from Cleveland. Freeman doesn’t exactly fit in with some of the khaki-wearing trust-fund kids, and thus, the house is split: Some want him gone, and others want him to stay. However cliché, there is conflict in the house.

What’s missing from Conger’s script, though, is a sense of urgency and danger. The story flip-flops from fear of change to camaraderie and general fun. At times, the young men’s heads are so far in the clouds that their opinions on Civil Rights and progression seem to come out of nowhere.

Little risks were taken in the staging and writing. There’s a level of cleanliness and safety in the production, as if it’s too afraid to offend, leaving the audience with drama that seems to jump out and say, “Take me seriously!”

Despite its weak script, the play feels honest in its portrayal of East Coast college life during the 1960s. The men Conger wrote were eerily similar to the “phonies” Holden Caulfield describes in the late J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Their characters may be a bit older, but they are certainly no less naïve or arrogant.

Each character was different – something not easily done with a cast of 11 similar men. There’s Freedom Rider Seth Flugelman, played by Ed Renninger; the actor, played by Jeffrey de Picciotto; and of course Freeman, played by J. Alex Brinson, with more ferocity than a shot of 5-Hour Energy.

Dan Amboyer plays the society’s president, Tom Rockwell. As the staunch elegant leader, Rockwell demands attention as he attempts to do what’s best for the house. He must balance his responsibility as the president and star football player, while appeasing his increasingly feminist girlfriend, all of which eventually brings him to a breaking point – and one of the play’s many excellently delivered monologues.

On the other hand, there’s Sean O’Dey, played by Paul Felder, who is openly disgusted by Darrell’s presence. O’Dey’s character is frightening because of Felder’s multidimensional performance. He turns from charming and fun to revolting and close-minded in a single beat.

Set designer Robert Klingelhoefer created a grand – albeit generic – home for the boys. The dirty white walls and ancient photographs of previous classes are exactly how I imagined the fraternity houses of an Ivy League university.

The most captivating design element was Colleen Grady’s costumes. From the tweeds to the loafers, it made me yearn for a time when jackets and ties were the only appropriate attire for dinner.

The biggest problem with this retro-drama is that it cannot decide whether to be filled with good-hearted fun or heart-wrenching drama. Either way, change is at the heart of the Walnut Street Theatre Company’s new production.

The Eclectic Society is about the idea that civility and education is nice, but sometimes, an alternative voice can be the wisest.

Max McCormack can be reached at edwin.mccormack@temple.edu.

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