A Tribute to a Midwestern Bard

This week's William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kan., will celebrate the life and work of a great gay 20th-century playwright.



Pictured: A production of Bus Stop will be part of the Inge festival.


The festival named for the Midwestern bard draws people from all walks of life every year, the director says — students, scholars, theatrical artists, farmers, businesspeople. Attendees, he says, generally find Independence, a town of about 9,000 people in the southeastern corner of Kansas, to be a hospitable locale, and the festival a remarkable event for the state’s smallest community college. Over the years its honorees and visitors have included such theater luminaries as Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Stephen Sondheim, August Wilson, and Wendy Wasserstein. “It’s difficult to get people to come here for the first time, then it’s hard not to get them to come back,” Ellenstein says.

Some of the artists involved in this year’s festival have a special connection to Inge. Shirley Knight received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1960 film version of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. The play she’ll appear in is by the winner of the festival’s New Voices Award, Samuel D. Hunter, who is “a great inheritor of William Inge,” Ellenstein says.

Hunter’s A Great Wilderness, commissioned and presented earlier this year by the Seattle Repertory Theatre, deals with an “ex-gay” Christian camp for teenagers. The main character, who’ll be played by Dakin Matthews, is a longtime camp counselor who has a crisis of conscience upon his retirement. “It’s a very, very nuanced look at the whole phenomenon,” Ellenstein says. With a cast that includes Knight, as Matthews’s ex-wife, and a local high school student, “it’s a really nice play and fits in beautifully with Inge’s legacy,” he adds.

In addition to hosting the festival, the Inge Center preserves the playwright’s legacy throughout the year. It has a playwright-in-residence program in which two playwrights, each semester, live in Inge’s boyhood home in Independence and work on new projects; they also teach at the college and local high schools. The center also has a variety of other outreach programs to local schools. And the college houses Inge’s manuscript collection.

The fact that some of the playwrights who’ve stayed at Inge’s house have reported what may have been supernatural encounters has led to the inclusion of a séance for the first time in this year’s festival. It’s not necessarily meant to be taken seriously, but it promises an evening of good fun, orchestrated by a local man who does re-creations of Victorian-era séances, notes Ellenstein. And for those who can’t make it to the séance, the house is open for tours year-round.

Meanwhile, for those who want to get to know Inge’s work and life better, Ellenstein has some suggestions. Come Back, Little Sheba is probably the most faithful film adaptation of an Inge play, he says, and it has a wonderful performance by Shirley Booth, reprising her Broadway role. Splendor in the Grass, he says, is “a beautiful screenplay and a beautiful movie.” Ellenstein also recommends a semiautobiographical novel by Inge, My Son Is a Good Driver, and Ralph F. Voss’s 1990 biography, A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph.

He predicts that audiences will find Inge’s work still resonates. “We live in a faster world, and yet people haven’t changed,” he says. “I think that his stuff really still speaks to everybody.”

Tags: Theater