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A Tribute to a Midwestern Bard

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.

With four consecutive Broadway hits, a Pulitzer Prize, and an Oscar, William Inge was one of the top dramatists of the mid-20th century. But he's not as well remembered today as some of his contemporaries -- say, Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. And after his death, there was some controversy about naming a theater in his hometown for him, as some townspeople considered him a "degenerate" because he was gay.

Happily, less bigoted minds prevailed, and not only is there a theater bearing his name, it's part of the larger William Inge Center for the Arts at Independence Community College in Independence, Kan. And this week the center is hosting a celebration of Inge's life and work, recognizing his importance as a playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, in observance of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

From Wednesday through Sunday, the 32nd annual William Inge Theatre Festival will take place in Independence, with about 50 events total, including scholarly panels devoted to his work; a production of his hit play Bus Stop; a reading of Samuel V. Hunter's new play, A Great Wilderness, starring Shirley Knight and Dakin Matthews; a gala dinner and auction; a multimedia tribute; and even a Victorian-style seance seeking to connect with the spirit of Inge, who died in 1973.

The festival, which started in 1982, has honored a living playwright each year until now, as organizers thought the best way to celebrate Inge was to recognize the present and the future of theater. But Inge's centenary and the recent resurgence of interest in his writings made this the right time to devote the festival to its namesake, says Peter Ellenstein, artistic director of the Inge Center.

"I think Inge is in the process of again being rediscovered," says Ellenstein, noting that playwrights tend to go in an out of fashion. This year his Pulitzer winner, Picnic, was revived on Broadway, and lesser-known Inge works are drawing audiences as well. In February a Kansas City, Mo., theater company presented a program of short Inge plays dealing with gay themes, something found only rarely in his work. Last year's Inge festival included a reading of an unpublished work by the playwright called Off the Main Road. And the center recently published a volume of his short plays, Inge: A Complex Evening.

Inge was a giant of the theater in his time, with a still-unmatched record of four consecutive Broadway hits in Come Back, Little Sheba (1950); Picnic (1953); Bus Stop (1955); and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). They are best known to audiences today through their entertaining if not completely faithful film versions; Inge didn't get to do the adaptations. He did, however, write directly for the screen, and he won an Oscar for his original screenplay for 1961's Splendor in the Grass, which starred Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty and was directed by Elia Kazan.

Inge's work remains relevant today, Ellenstein says, because of his extraordinarily sympathetic portrayal of human foibles. "He's one of the few playwrights in America who writes about empathy and forgiveness as maybe his main themes," says Ellenstein. Inge wrote mainly about small-town Midwesterners, reflecting his roots, but he showed that their stories are universal -- like everyone, they've experienced problems, they have various regrets, but they're trying to make the best of the hand they've been dealt.

"He's a really, really fine writer of well-observed characters," adds Ellenstein, noting that because of this several scholars have called Inge "the American Chekhov."

Ellenstein says Inge's homosexuality informed his creation of true-to-life, sympathetic characters. "The fact that he had this big secret that the world had judged unacceptable, and he had judged unacceptable, made him look outside and judge what was authentic," says Ellenstein.

For all the forgiveness Inge shows his characters, Ellenstein says, "The only person he was unable to forgive was himself." In 1973, driven by professional setbacks, alcoholism, and shame over being gay, the playwright took his own life.

While Inge desired acceptance by the world at large, he never stopped wanting acceptance in his hometown. As demonstrated by the battle over naming the community college's theater for Inge, that acceptance wasn't always readily offered. But Independence has come to appreciate its American Chekhov, a phenomenon that brings a comparison to another playwright. "There are two places where they celebrate hometown playwrights: Stratford and Independence," says Ellenstein.

Cherie_virgil_box400_0Pictured: 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 seance 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 seances, notes Ellenstein. And for those who can't make it to the seance, 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."

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