Theodore Roethke Reanimated Onstage in First Class

David Wagoner's version of the UW legend is by turns funny, confrontational, addled, and luminescent.

There is nothing quite so invigorating, compelling, and inspiring as a good lecture—especially when delivered by a reanimated dead poet with a sharp tongue, a piquant intellect, and an encyclopedic grasp of the vast history of English verse. In his fine new play, First Class, David Wagoner reinvents a sort of Platonic college course with the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Theodore Roethke, who taught at the University of Washington from 1947 until his rather mysterious death in 1963 at the age of 55. Wagoner, who was Roethke's student at Penn State before becoming his UW colleague in the mid-'50s, paints a loving portrait of the artist as a wry and goading sage, offering in the space of a single, idealized lecture a rich and bittersweet view of Roethke's seductive persona.

In Wagoner's re-creation, Roethke appears as a deliciously demonic, once-in-a-lifetime college professor—charmingly grouchy, wickedly smart, gently but persistently prodding his students' collective psyche, struggling to awaken whatever germ of artistic inspiration lies dormant in those malleable young minds. Wagoner's Roethke is by turns funny, confrontational, addled, and luminescent. And by transforming his classroom into a teleporter, which at key moments places the poet in different settings, Wagoner is able to present a more complete and therefore confounding view of his mentor and friend.

Roethke is played by veteran actor John Aylward (you'll recognize him as Dr. Donald Anspaugh on ER), whose gravelly baritone and basset-hound demeanor seem to capture the poet's disheveled but imposing figure. To start the play proper—or class, if you will—Aylward enters, lumbering and lugging an attaché, giving a distracted "Hi" before dropping a satchelful of papers on the floor: the perfect image of the absentminded professor. This is something of a ruse, if a ruse can be unintentional. Before long, Aylward's Roethke is pacing the classroom and scattering pearls of wisdom like confetti. "This is a poetry workshop," he tells those assembled (you, dear theatergoer). "God help us. Literally." Antic, too wildly curious to be contained, Roethke's mind ranges over a dizzying array of subjects, from "tiresome Tom Eliot" and the "thump and smack" of Mother Goose to the college library's "Land of Oz-mosis" and the inveterate loneliness of the poet. Compressing a lifetime of memory into a single class, Wagoner invokes a deep and far-ranging portrait of a teacher whose surpassing brilliance was anchored by an off-kilter but sincere concern for his students. This part of First Class, brought colorfully to life by Aylward, is a pure pleasure. It's easy to imagine oneself back in class, fresh-scrubbed and wide-eyed, as the hoary old professor exhorts your attention. You may even want to take notes.

A simple lighting change signals a break in the play's documentary style, as Roethke slips midclass into a rather sordid memory of a cocktail party he attended, perhaps just the night before. Under the direction of ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie, the transition is pedestrian but effective enough, and Aylward takes full advantage of the moment to cut loose with some barbed comic chops. Under the influence of alcohol, Roethke ranges over the assembled guests, pointing out this one as "a hillbilly who learned the alphabet" and that one as a "walking case of constipation." He gets slapped. And then it's over; the lights snap back on, and the poet misses a beat—"where was I?"—before regaining his step. The latter half of the play is taken up by another such transition, which portrays Roethke in full crack-up mode, bouncing around and dancing as he spirals into self-loathing and artistic doubt. Despite Aylward's fine acting, the segment drags on a bit too long; Wagoner's desire to give a complete view of Roethke, darkness, drunkenness, and all, is unaided by this protracted breakdown. As the poet said, less is more.

Even with these minor missteps, this is a powerful and engaging work, a rare insider's view of an artist in the role of teacher and mentor. Wagoner's play works hard to be unsentimental, but even in its warts-and-all embrace it virtually glows with the sepia-toned, idealized aura of a bygone age—one before cell phones and e-mail, when Google might have been another creation of Dr. Seuss. There's mileage to be gained on the kind of romanticism presented in First Class, because at bottom the man portrayed is a man of quality, talent, and nerve; he knows his stuff.

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