note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
I never saw nor met four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning, idyllic poet Robert Frost, but wish I had. Because Frost died in 1963, the closest I’ll get is watching Gordon Clapp’s enlightening performance of the witty, self-effacing poet who immortalized birch trees, fences, pastures, hired men, and the simpler joys of life and nature with a mere stroke of his pen. Director Gus Kaikkonen and Clapp have resurrected the erstwhile Democrat, who sheepishly hints at his politics, but capitalizes on his love of poetry.
Emmy Award winner Clapp’s devotion and affinity to his fellow New Englander and literary idol is touching in this one-man, one-act, 85-minute resurrection. Clapp (of “NYPD Blue” TV series and stage fame), grew up in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and attended college in Connecticut. Although Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874, he and his family moved to New England - specifically Lawrence - when he was 11 years old, and Frost fell in love with the area. His roots lie in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and his beloved adopted state, Vermont.
In Massachusetts actor-playwright A.M. Dolan’s tribute to the man, poet and philosopher, we hear American language as it’s spoken, not glorified or scholastically pontificated. The play is set in the early 1960s, as Frost is writing his last book, delivering a talk, and reflecting on his writing, love and losses.
To hear Clapp in a natural New England accent recite and discuss Frost’s masterpieces as the poet would have, cracking quips during one of Frost’s “talks” across the country, is mesmerizing. “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “The Death of a Hired Man” acquire heightened eloquence, their images and metaphors more pronounced and fascinating as Clapp recites them from memory.
He chuckles during anecdotes about journalists‘ and readers‘ questions regarding Frost’s symbolism and inner meaning behind his poems, such as the refrain in “The Pasture:” I shan’t be gone long; you come, too;” or the closing in “The Road Not Taken”: “I took the road less traveled by/ And that was what made all the difference”.
Did the poet with the famous silvery shock of hair tantalize his readers with hints of death and the paranormal, he was oftentimes asked. Did he capture the metaphysical in wooded glens, snowy meadows, and bowed white-barked trees? “I say yes 50 percent of the time,” he laughs.
He says he doesn’t write the “new” form of poetry - free verse. He writes some blank verse, but loves couplets, he adds. And metaphors. He spouts simple, rhyming couplets, that are simply fun to say. As fantastic as Clapp’s performance is, Dolan’s script leaves us wanting to know more about Frost’s life. We know he married Elinor, with whom he had six children, and was his inspiration; but Dolan omits she was his high school sweetheart in Lawrence. He leaves out details of beloved daughter Marjorie’s death a few years before Elinor, in 1934, and sadly says his son Carol committed suicide (in 1940 at age 38). He glosses over daughter Elinor’s death at a year old and son Elliott’s, of cholera, at 4. Frost had two surviving children, Irma, and globe-trotting daughter, Lesley. He alludes to Frost’s political leanings as a Democrat and Frost’s reading one of his poems at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 - at Kennedy’s request, but he merely mentions Frost’s literary allies and colorful career.
Kaikkonen’s folksy set, opening with a speaker’s platform with a dais, table and chair, then revealing behind the curtain Frost’s front porch, with sound designer Jason Weber’s rustling trees and birds tweeting merrily, capture the New England rural genre.
BOX INFO: One-man, one-act, 85-minute portrayal of Robert Frost, written by A.M. Dolan, starring Gordon Clapp, appearing through Nov. 13 at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2,7 p.m., Nov. 13, 2 p.m. only. Post-show performances Nov. 3 and 10, after the 7:30 shows. Call 978-654-4678 or visit MerrimackRep.org. Tickets begin at $24.