MICKLE STREET is ambitious in its attempt to recreate the voices of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman in intimate conversation. But while the intention is awe-inspiring, the execution is less so.
It’s 1882. in the midst of his flashy American tour sensational 28-year-old Oscar Wilde (Daniel Fredrick) finds the time to visit Walt Whitman (Buck Schirner) in Camden, New Jersey. Whitman, approaching the end of his career and life, lives with widow Mary (Sabrina Profitt), who tries to keep Walt fed and the house in order, neither of which seems an enviably easy task. The anticipated guest’s arrival is full of cultural shocks - Camden in 1882 is so confusingly democratic with its lack of maids and calling cards that one of the great commentators on human behavior can’t wrap his head around it – but the two men soon settle in for a discussion on science, poetry and beauty that eventually leads to self-revelation for the young Oscar.
Oscar Wilde – and, to an extent, Walt Whitman – has become legendary to such an otherworldly degree that depicting him can be quite the uphill battle. It certainly isn’t easy to write lines for him. MICKLE STREET does have some chuckle-worthy moments; Michael Whistler’s script has some witticisms, but most of them were written by Wilde and seem out of place in the dialogue. Especially when the play falls into the trap of trying to be clever by inserting awkward references about Wilde’s later career into the dialogue: Oscar fantasizes out loud about the existence of a portrait that would show the true self of the subject and Wilt’s advice for Oscar on how to improve his writing is that he needs to be more “earnest”. I can only assume it’s important.
The three actors do admirably with a script that has significant problems, and director Greg Wood finds moments of genuine fun and warmth when the play doesn’t try to overreach and the actors are free to portray real people rather than literary icons. Unfortunately these moments don’t get much room in a play that seems confused about its identity and purpose: After attempts at comedic observations on 19th century society and trivial lectures on 19th century philosophy, it seems to lead us to the idea that there’s nothing wrong with a man desiring a man. Without any story to dramatize what this means for the characters, the idea alone seems about as revolutionary in 2015 as the observation that having maids and calling cards is a bit snobbish. It leaves you wondering what’s the point of this.
One of the many famous quotes the play borrows from Oscar Wilde goes: “I cannot listen to anyone unless he attracts me by charming style or beauty of theme”. MICKLE STREET would’ve been better off taking its main character’s advice. [Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio 3, 825 Walnut Street] February 17-March 8, 2015; walnutstreettheatre.org.