'1933' probes small town, universal issues

New play explores immigrant experience, American Dream.

Baseball, coming of age, and the remorse of maturity that has failed its youthful promise - these are the universal issues at play in "1933."

Adapted for the stage by Randall Myler and Brockman Seawell from John Fante's autobiographical novella, "1933 Was A Very Bad Year," "1933" is an impressive piece of work as staged in its world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company. This new play implies that the search for meaning is fundamental to human beings - and when it is denied, the consequences can be grim.

Boldly staged using slide projections against variously layered white walls and pillars, the play is beautifully acted by newcomer Bryant Richards and established performers like Yusef Bulos (TV's "Law & Order") and Kathleen Brady. The show finds universal themes in its story set in Boulder, Colo., among Italian immigrants. It speaks to audiences here of local history as well as universal themes. Best of all, its language is profound and poetic, and its sentiments are earned by its unsentimental story.

Playwright Myler, reached in New York by phone, says: "When [Seawell] sent this to me, I was really moved by it, having grown up in northern California among Italian families.... The grandmother was still living with the family, refusing to speak English, and convinced that the grandchildren were going to ruin...."

Probably few in the audience of "1933" knew beforehand that Boulder, today an upscale college town, was ever a haven for Italian immigrants. Yet they mined for gold in the nearby mountains, and carved stones and laid them for the marvelous halls and houses still standing in the scenic community, Myler points out. In fact, author Fante's father was a master mason.

As the lights come up, an old man sits outside on his patio, taking in the sun under a projected bright blue sky fluffed with white clouds, remembering his youth. He is The Writer, played by Mr. Bulos, who grew up in Boulder when there was still a class system that relegated Italians to nearly untouchable status. He narrates the story.

The son of a bricklayer, 17-year-old Dom (Mr. Richards), resents his father's treatment of his mother and defies his demands that Dom take up the family trade when he graduates from high school. Dom wants to play professional baseball - a pipe dream, perhaps, but a powerful one. Dom has fallen for a beautiful blonde, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and when his hopes are dashed by her, he plans his escape.

The Writer makes his fortune, not in baseball, but in Hollywood as a screenwriter. The regret he feels about his life has nothing to do with missing a career in baseball.

In the novella, Dom has a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the play, Seawell brings us back to the memory of that vision - a symbol of unheeded spiritual guidance. The boy has not trusted the yearning for a deeper life nor followed the inspired direction his life should have taken.

Reached by phone at his home in New York, Seawell said: "The play has three levels. The first is the fairly traditional story of a boy growing up and needing to leave home. The second [concerns] the failure of the American Dream - Dom becomes financially successful and at the same time is disappointed with his achievements. And the third level is the spiritual, ... having to do with the failure of the American Dream to be fulfilling.... It is the underlying story [of the vision] that supports the other themes."

Myler and Seawell leave the meaning of the vision obscure - as it should be. For each individual, the call to live a more meaningful life is unique.

The point is not to fail one's best visions of reality. Though the play is sad on one level, it is inspiring on another. The vision, after all, returns. It's always there.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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