By Tulis McCall
I am not a pushover. But this very fine production of Dead Poets Society left me shattered and hopeful. In other words – a mess.
It is 1959 and the six entering Juniors at Welton Academy in Nowhere New England are on the edge of their futures. They have forged deep friendships whose value they do not yet realize. They have picked up the scent of the rebellion that lies in their hormonal makeup without a clue about what is already fomenting outside their world. McCarthy did not touch them. Nor has the Beat generation. What is needed is a big gun. It arrives in a compact package by the name of John Keating (Jason Sudeikis) who shows up unannounced with a twinkle in his eye and a supply of spit balls that he will not only toss, he will share for the tossing.
Keating takes on Messrs. Anderson (Zane Pais), Perry (Thomas Mann), Dalton (Cosy Costro), Meeks (Bubba Weiler), Overstreet (Willilam Hockman), and Cameron (Yaron Lotan) with a passion that these gents have heretofore never seen. Their headmaster Mr. Nolan (David Garrison) has been on a steady diet of warm milk for many decades. His personal motto is the same as the school’s (to whom he refers in the feminine “she”): Tradition! Honor! Discipline! Excellence! Although we do not see any other members of the faculty, the assumption is that they are all subscribed to the headmaster’s playbook.
The boys have subverted the above motto into Travesty! Horror! Decadence! Excrement! as soon as the headmaster is out of earshot. They are an impish lot (a younger version of the college students up to sexual no good who appeared at CSC in Unnatural Acts) who resemble a tumbling pile of very smart puppies. The fly in the ointment comes in the form of Mr. Perry Senior (Stephen Barker Turner). He not only wants the best for his son Neil, who has the highest grades in his class, he wants the best as he sees it fit for his son. This means cutting back on extra curricular activities such s the school yearbook. No argument permitted. No questions to be asked. Finito.
This shaming precedes Keating’s entrance which resembles that of a wily fox looking for a snack. Within minutes he has tossed Whitman at the boys, suggested they refer to him as “Oh Captain, My Captain” introduced To The Virgins to Make Much of Time from which he extrapolates the Latin “Carpe Diem.” He instructs his charges to study the photographs of the boys who came before who are now food for worms – really, really, really look. He tells them Carpe… Carpe… Carpe Diem. Seize the day, people. Make your lives extraordinary. And vanishes.
The next day leads to ripping pages out of a book that tries to explain poetry in mechanical terms. This is drivel, says Keating. Poetry is about passion, romance, love and beauty – YOU know – those pesky things for which we actually alive. He give them Whitman again “Oh me, Oh life of the questions of these recurring. Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish… What good amid these O me, O life? Answer: That you are here – That life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” What will your verse be, he asks and drops the question at their feet.
The boys are ignited by Keating and perform their own due diligence, discovering his yearbook and thereby The Dead Poets Society. The society was a group of boys who met in a nearby cave to read all the biggies: Thoreau, Byron, Shelley (all radical white men of course – were it today I imagine Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Karr would have been included). The seeds are planted and nurtured by Keating, and the boys begin to flower. They create their own Society. They experiment and soar. They color outside the Welton Box.
This will lead to their demise, of course, as the walls of respectability close in on them with miserable effects. So miserable as to cause irrevocable disruption. But as the story collapses in on itself there are three tiny flames that relight as we watch. Out of despair comes hope.
And that is where the story ends. We do not know the future of any of these people. We do know that there is possibility. We are devastated and hopeful. Kind of like today in my world.
This is a seamless production with every member of the cast inhabiting their characters with precision and grace. It is tempting to say that Sudeikis is the standout, but he is merely the most excellent leader. Every performance matches not only Sudeikis’ skill but the spirit of his character, John Keating, as well. It is a particularly poignant reminder that in the face of the frightening change of direction in which this country is headed, the only hope is for us to remain vigilant and seize the day over and over again. To choose with outrageous fervor our own verse and contribute it with passion and volumn. And that reminder made me weep.
Over to Whitman again:
What will yours be? If you need shoring up, this is the play to see. BRAVO.
Dead Poets Society – By Tom Schulman (Adapted from his screenplay), Directed by John Doyle
With Francesca Carpanini, David Garrison, William Hochman, Cody Kostro, Yaron Lotan, Thomas Mann, Zane Pais, Jason Sudeikis, Stephen Barker Turner, Bubba Weiler
Set Design Scott Pask; Costume Design Ann Hould-Ward; Lighting Design Japhy Weidemann; Sound Design Matt Stine
Classic Stage Company (Artistic Director John Doyle and Managing Director Jeff Griffin); Performances for Dead Poets Society (136 East 13th Street) will play a limited engagement extended through Sunday, December 18. For further call (212) 352-3101, visit the theatre in person at 136 East 13th Street, or go to www.classicstage.org.