BWW Review: World Premiere THE HAUNTED LIFE: Kerouac's Back in Lowell
The Haunted Life
Written by Sean Daniels, Based on the book by Jack Kerouac, Directed by Sean Daniels and christopher oscar peña; Scenic Designer, James J. Fenton; Costume Designer, Sarita Fellows; Lighting Designer, Brian Lilienthal; Sound Designer, David Remedios; Dramaturg, Michele Volansky; Production Stage Manager, Jakob W. Plummer; Dialect Coach, Charles Linshaw; Fight Choreographer, Ted Hewlett; Fight Captain, Jakob W. Plummer
Performances through April 14 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
It's a different time and a different war, but the protagonist in this coming of age story faces many of the same challenges as would a young person today. What do I want to do with my life? Where do I fit in the world? How can I make my mark? Meanwhile, set in the City of Lowell in 1941-2, as it is struggling to come to terms with a surfeit of immigrants, that city today remains a diverse community in a nation that is roiled by the debate over how to deal with a flood of immigrants and asylum seekers. Artistic Director Sean Daniels has adapted Lowell native Jack Kerouac's unfinished, long-lost novel The Haunted Life into a play of the same name, now having its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, with Daniels co-directing with christopher oscar peña.
Looking back at a turbulent time in America, while living in a turbulent time in America, the similarities are legion. The hard-working, blue collar types are struggling to make ends meet, while the winds of war are looming. Established immigrants rail against the newcomers who are changing the face of their community, and President Roosevelt is to blame for all of it. But, dissimilarly, political differences could be put aside when your family needed you or the outside world endangered your country, and joining the war effort was communal. Less than two decades after 9/11, divisiveness prevails and our ability to coalesce against a common enemy seems lost.
The Martin family is at the center of The Haunted Life, with son Peter (Raviv Ullman) as Kerouac's stand-in. His conservative father Joe (Joel Colodner) runs a printing press, mom Vivienne (Tina Fabrique) runs the household, and unseen brother Wesley ran off at 17 to see the world. Peter is also a runner, a track star at Boston College, but he leaves home at 19 to join the Merchant Marines before war breaks out. Along with his buddy Garabed (Vichet Chum), they dream of leaving Lowell and writing about their exploits. Keeping the home fires burning and trying to keep Peter's feet to the fire is girlfriend Eleanor (Caroline Neff).
At the top of the show, all five members of the cast are spaced across the stage and address the audience to introduce their characters and set the scene. This fourth wall-breaking narration is interspersed with dialogue throughout the entire play, alternately speeding forward progress and interrupting dramatic flow. One positive aspect of these speeches is that some of Kerouac's most beautiful language is recited, sounding better to the ear than when it is spoken in conversation by one of the characters. (More than once, I had the thought, "who talks like this?" when Peter and Garabed exchanged flowery dialogue.) However, it feels like far too much telling over showing.
When the story begins, it is the summer of 1941 and Peter's days are a lazy mix of listening to the Red Sox on the radio with his father and drinking beer with his friends. However, Peter's existential angst and the escalating verbal abuse (racist, anti-semitic) spewed by Joe eventually reach a crescendo that propels him out into the world. External forces work on him, making him grow up, although not necessarily to bring on maturity. He drinks to excess, endures writer's block, suffers loss, and becomes disillusioned. Meanwhile, everyone else is going through their own hard times, and Peter is rarely there for them. Some of the best scenes are those where his loved ones confront him about his penchant for running away.
The Haunted Life does have a story arc, heavily influenced by the effects of the war, but it feels more like a book being read aloud than a play. For the most part, the actors breathe life into the characters, but they are continually being deflated by the narrative interruptions. Neff and Chum (who plays a handful of roles) are the most vibrant and enjoyable to watch, and Colodner brings his reliable steady portrayal. Fabrique exudes warmth and does what she can with the least developed character. Ullman bears a heavy load as the fulcrum, but he conveys Peter's struggle with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
James J. Fenton's scenic design features a tiered, shiny black floor surrounded by walls of window frames rising on three sides. Brian J. Lilienthal's design effectively uses a combination of overhead spots, footlights, and changing hues to transition between narrative and dialogue scenes. Sarita Fellows provides costume design evocative of the 1940s and the family's economic status. Sound designer David Remedios gives us Red Sox play-by-play, Benny Goodman music, and soft underscoring.
Aided by dramaturg Michelle Volansky and his co-director peña, Daniels has spent a couple of years adapting Kerouac's unfinished book for the stage. It is remarkable how much of it not only resonates with the zeitgeist of our time, but how harshly some of the language rings. The racism and anti-semitism, mostly expressed by Joe, are jarring to hear and sound all too familiar with language that grows louder and is heard more frequently today. To his credit, Daniels has chosen to use a multi-racial cast, resulting in a very different experience than if it were only white people telling the story. Whatever its shortcomings as a play, The Haunted Life raises issues worth examining.