The Importance of Loving Ernest

An evening with the Hemingways

The closest I've ever come to a private audience with a genuine literary idol came after an Allen Ginsberg performance in Santa Monica four or five years ago. I stood in line, nervously holding my dog-eared pocket edition of Howl, waiting for the great man's autograph. My turn came, and I blurted out something vaguely coherent about how he was a great inspiration. Ginsberg quickly scrawled his name, looked up with rheumy eyes and said cheerlessly, "Don't follow my path to destruction."

I'm still not quite sure what he meant, but I like to think it was rare and heartfelt. Perhaps he meant that at some point (metaphorically speaking), the child must kill the parent and the student must kill the teacher to make way for the next stage of development. That may be why so many of the great myths are about great men (and sometimes women) who get chained to rocks and have their livers pecked out by birds, or wander the earth blind, or get crucified. On some level, heroes need to die (or at least suffer greatly) for the rest of us to get on with our own lives.

Some of that is apparent in A Summer with Hemingway's Twin, a play by first-time playwright Lucille deView that is receiving its world premiere at Alternative Repertory Theatre. The hero worship is reserved for Ernest Hemingway, who never makes an appearance but whose personality dominates the characters' lives and conversations. And the big choice in this play is whether the protagonist will follow Hemingway and make art no matter what, or opt for the far less romantic path of family and obligation.

Hemingway did as much as anyone to create the cult of the hard-drinking, hard-living, self-serving artist; worshiping him is frequently a convenient explanation for mere narcissism, which is why the Hemingway cult swelled during his life and was hackneyed before he died—especially among young men with only a passing appreciation for Hemingway's stories. But deView's protagonist isn't a young man; she's a 21-year-old female college student so transfixed by his clipped prose that she finagles her way into the Hemingway family's summer retreat as a housekeeper in the fevered hope that she'll meet her idol. Alas, Hemingway has had a falling out with his sister and hasn't shown up at the old homestead in 10 years.

DeView's nicely written coming-of-age tale has the look and feel of an old-school memory play. There's just enough depth and character development to lift the proceedings above dusty nostalgia and personal reminiscence. And while the politics of the play are ultimately middle-of-the-road—we learn that family and responsibility are more virtuous than artistic ambition—in the context of this story and these characters, the Right politics seem right. It's not exactly cage-rattling, fiery indignation, but it's a well-told tale.

We begin in a cottage on the shores of Walloon Lake. It's the summer of 1939. Lila Violet Nobis (Heather Kjos), an American-literature student, has arrived for her summer job: tending house for Hemingway's sister, Marcelline Hemingway Sanford (Sally Leonard, in a typically poised and substantive performance). Lila is there because she's into Ernest Hemingway. Deeply. She has lied her way into this summer job just to breathe the same air Hemingway breathed while he was growing up. She recites entire passages from his stories, sleeps in his old army tent, and writes poetry to the flickering light of his old lantern.

Lila soon learns that her enthusiasm isn't really shared by his so-called twin, Marcelline, who is actually 18 months older than Ernest. Their mother, Grace Hall Hemingway (Myrna Niles), pretended they were twins as part of some weird dramatic notion; she even dressed them in the same clothes early in life, an important biographic detail. We learn quite early that Marcelline—an artist of no meager talent herself—greatly resents her younger brother and her resentment is sharpened by the flocks of adoring fans who migrate each summer to the family retreat, drawn there by the Hemingway magic.

Everyone else, it seems, loves Ernest. Mother Grace pines for her son, hoping that he's going to miraculously appear this summer. Marcelline, though bitter, usually speaks in glowing terms. Lila, as we've seen, is already a Hemingway basket case. Even Willis Whittemore (Frank Romeo, in the evening's most complex performance), the dapper son of the auto magnate whose marriage is crumbling and who supplies the other half of the summer romance, bows before the Ernest shrine, right down to imitating Hemingway's appearance.

Like Hemingway's oft-repeated dictum on writing (writing is an iceberg, with the words merely the tip and the meaning plunging far below the surface), deView's play is about more than a relatively naive girl's awakening. In some way, every character in this play has been abandoned. Lila's mother died when she was young; in turn, she is contemplating leaving her troubled younger brother and sickly baby sister to become a writer. Willis has left his wife and son. Ernest has left his entire family. Interestingly, what breaks hearts in this play is one character's unusual decision to stand by family.

If the production has a failing, it's that it fails to sharpen the conflict Lila feels between family and art. As Lila, Kjos is eminently believable and likable, but there's something missing in her character: the dangerous, unpredictable quality of a 21-year-old with powerful dreams. Without that, the audience never really questions her choice. That may have less to do with Kjos' performance than director Joel Cotter's staging. This production is efficient, but a touch drab for a play about creativity, artistic passion and a young woman's first romance. A dash of style is sorely needed.

That's not just technical criticism. It's at the heart of deView's play. This is, after all, a memory play that lends itself greatly to bending the rules of "realistic" theater. One small example: the recorded voice of Lila introduces several scenes, telling us how much time has elapsed and offering a bit of description. Having Lila onstage speaking directly to the audience would have added a far more ethereal and timeless (maybe even poetic) quality than staid overdubbing.

Still, the staging tells deView's tale well—it handles a sentimental subject that doesn't feel sentimental, manipulative or cheap. There is wisdom in it that is surprising for a first-time playwright. Of course, deView is a first-time 78-year-old playwright, so she obviously has had a few years of experience to draw from. Here's hoping it won't take another 78 years before we hear from her again.

A Summer with Hemingway's Twin at Alternative Repertory Theatre, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 542-5580. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through July 3. $22-$25.

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