The New Paltz High School Drama Club will present Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” for their fall production. It’s an unusual choice, a play not often revived on stage since its 1957 debut on Broadway. (That is perhaps due to the size of the cast; there are 18 main roles, and the cost of putting on a show is always a factor.) But the coming of age tale, a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s 1929 novel about a 17-year-old boy longing to escape his small town and the chaos of his family life, seems a particularly appropriate choice for a teenage cast.
The director, drama club advisor Nancy Owen, says she chose the dramatic work for her young actors because they were ready for it. “The past few years, we’ve done comedies for the fall production, but I have a number of graduating seniors who have been very involved with the shows and really wanted a challenge. So they got it!”
The drama is set in 1916 North Carolina, so the actors have to deal with a different time period and speak with a southern accent. “The thing about a southern accent, is that once you try it, it’s very easy to slip into,” says Owen. “It just kind of rolls off your tongue; it’s an easier dialect than some.” The students felt self-conscious about it at first, she says, but “once they started doing it — and they all had to do it together, because everyone in the play speaks with a southern accent — I think they had fun trying that on.”
In addition, the cast of 14- to-17-year-olds play characters that range in age from 17 to 60. “It’s been very interesting watching them. This is an amazing group of kids; they’ve really sunk their teeth into it. They really want to tell this story and they want the audience to understand these characters.”
“Look Homeward, Angel: The Story of a Buried Life” was Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, a thinly disguised autobiography with protagonist Eugene Gant his alter ego and the story set in a fictionalization of his hometown (Asheville, North Carolina). Eugene’s frugal mother runs a boardinghouse — as did Wolfe’s mother — where her preferential treatment of the boarders makes for bitter feelings amongst her children. Eugene’s deeply unhappy father is an abusive alcoholic.
The members of the high school drama club did a lot of exercises exploring ways to portray these characters without falling into stereotypes, says Owen. “We had a lot of talks about family relationships, and about the father’s drinking. We also talked about anger, and the different ways anger is expressed; that it’s not always shouting but can be an internal anger, spitting your words out, or whispering. They explored all these different things and tried them out.”
Usually the first time a scene is run “off book” in rehearsal, she says, the actors are concentrating on remembering their lines and not thinking as much about their characterizations. But Owen says she was impressed at how well this group of student actors were able to put across their characters even in the initial run-through. “I was just amazed at how well they worked together, and helped each other through. I’m very impressed with the talent and also with the heart of these kids. It’s a special group.”
Of the play’s 18 speaking roles, ten are for males. Owen says that in the past, for lack of male actors, she’s had to ask female students to play male roles, but not this time. “So many male actors auditioned I was able to fill every one of the roles, which was nice. I have two ninth graders and then students from 10th, 11th and 12th grade, so everyone is represented.”
Auditions for the production were held in mid-September, with the cast and 12 crew and tech people working on the show since. The cast includes Becky Dugatkin as the mother, Eliza; Philip Jones as her husband, W.O. Gant; Chance Stover as Eugene Gant; Matthew Gose as Eugene’s brother, Ben; Emily Feshold as Eugene’s sister, Helen Barton; James Hyland as Helen’s husband, Hugh; and Kelly McElroy as Laura James, a boarder and Eugene’s love interest. Costuming was coordinated by drama club members Caleb Sheedy, Megan Geher and Jessica Dugatkin, who researched the time period extensively to come up with appropriate garb. A couple of student alumni came back to lend their time and theatrical expertise to the show, too, says Owen, noting special thanks to Karyn Morehouse and Katelyn Welch.
The Broadway production of “Look Homeward, Angel” that ran from 1957-59 was staged with a revolving platform to depict the changes in setting, but the high school doesn’t have that capability. Owen designed staging instead that puts the action outside the boarding house looking in through the framework of the house, so the audience perceives that constant presence of the boarders, dining at the table or playing cards, that so aggravates most of the characters.
“It’s a sad story, but a really strong one,” says Owen. “And I love when plays tell a story that you really travel through with the characters; you really feel invested in the outcome.”
Performances will be Thursday, November 16 through Saturday, November 18 at 7:30 p.m. each night. General admission tickets cost $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors; available at the door of the high school auditorium before each performance.