David Jay and I saw *The Pattern at Pendarvis* on 8/1/18, presented by the New Dog Theatre Company and StreetSigns. My friend Bryon in Wisconsin had told me about the play - - it’s an adaptation/dramatization of an interview that Will Fellows did as part of the research for his book *A Passion To Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture.* The story centers on Pendarvis, a historical site in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Mineral Point was a 19th century center for lead miners from Cornwall and in the 1930s Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum bought some of the buildings and restored them, opening them as a tourist attraction and eventually a restaurant. The Wisconsin Historical Society took over the property in 1970 and gradually washed away all evidence of the gay couple who had created it.
It’s a three-character play: it’ll be easiest for me to call them the Old Man, the Young Man, and the Troublemaker. The Old Man is Edgar Hellum, the surviving half of the gay couple who restored Pendarvis. The Young Man is Rich Farnsworth, a fictionalized depiction of Will Fellows, the author of the book. It’s 1997 and the Young Man has come to Mineral Point to interview the Old Man. He’s greeted by the Troublemaker, the president of the Board that manages Pendarvis. The Troublemaker is very gracious at first. The Old Man shows up and the Young Man starts the interview. Whenever his questions steer in a vaguely gay direction, the Troublemaker reroutes the conversation back to the restoration angle. This happens again and again, leading to a heated argument between the Young Man and the Troublemaker. The Old Man eventually asks the Troublemaker to leave.
Their conversation becomes much more direct and, in a sense, intimate. At one point the Young Man asks him if he wishes he had been born thirty or forty years later, wouldn’t his life have been easier, wouldn’t it have been more fulfilling to have lived in a more open and honest way? The Old Man is somewhat insulted by this question. He doesn’t feel that the Young Man appreciates that his life with his partner had integrity and meaning, that they lived in an honest way even if they didn’t talk with others about their relationship. The play ends with a genuine and profound sweetness. The two characters have bonded, learned from each other, and formed a meaningful connection.
David Jay and I both enjoyed the play, it was consistently interesting and well done. We both felt it was low on drama, which is unusual for a play! But it worked on its own merits. It’s exactly the right length at an hour and twenty minutes, and has found a perfect home in the tiny theater south of Houston Street. This show will not transfer to a larger Off Broadway house and then on to Broadway, and we shouldn’t expect that it would. We both thought it would be good to be produced now and then during Pride Month, and it would work very well as a TV movie on Logo or similar.
The three actors were all first class. All three of them nailed the Midwestern reserve, I loved seeing that. David Murray Jaffe played the Troublemaker, which is maybe the trickiest part. He did a good job of sitting and listening and stirring things up when needed. He created drama without being dramatic about it, which I imagine is a difficult balance. Gregory Jensen played the Young Man. He was very appealing, and it has to be said, very handsome, and he had charming sort of awkward manner.
The most touching performance was by Lawrence Merritt as the Old Man, Edgar Hellum. He’s eighty years old (I did a little internet sleuthing to find that number), and has an impressive list of credits: he was in the original Broadway companies of *No Strings,* *Dear World,* *Applause,* and *Pippin.* He also appeared as a dancer with Ann-Margret, Raquel Welch, Liza Minnelli, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers. It was a joy to see an actor of his age playing a leading role in a play. He had a warmth and sincerity that were very effective. At first I thought a few of his mannerisms (the way he emphatically blinked his eyes, his difficulty getting into and out of the chair) were choices for his character, but by the end of the show I wondered if they were actually parts of HIM! He did need help getting out of the chair for his curtain call…
I asked for a press ticket to this show and they offered me two, which is always a treat. But the biggest treat was walking into the theater and seeing that we had reserved seats! That was a first for me, I felt so VIP.