For fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Confederacy of Dunces, written by John Kennedy Toole and published posthumously against all odds, this wrenching, poignant play examines the pained life of its author, of parents grappling with their loss, the student who adored him, and the book that went on to become a cult classic and a worldwide sensation.
A brilliant, repressed, unhappy man, Toole pours his keen observations about the Big Easy’s cast of oddballs and his tortured family dynamic lovingly into his novel, which is repeatedly rejected by New York publishers. Like his character Ignatius J. Reilly, he doesn’t know how he fits into the world, and while he longs for greatness, he is chained to New Orleans and the house where he lives with his parents.
Thelma Toole smothers and chastises him; if he’s working, he’s cooped up, using the book as an excuse to forsake his father’s longing to be close. Suffocating and stifled, unable to flee himself (“pinned and wriggling on a wall”, as he quotes from T. S. Eliot), and with the book keeping his future on hold, he takes his own life. Actor Ryan Spahn beautifully portrays a man seething with frustration and repression.
Toole taught English literature at St. Mary’s Dominican High School; award-winning playwright Vivian Neuwirth funnels her personal recollections of Mr. Toole into the smitten character of his student Lisette. Julia Randall as Lisette is pitch-perfect, her body and mind electrified by Toole, who pretends to be oblivious by her flirtations. Neuwirth thoughtfully, lovingly portrays her former teacher as a complex, sensitive man who longs to share his story, even as he withdraws from the world.
The story may be of Toole’s book, but the play belongs to Linda Purl. She effortlessly portrays Thelma’s obsessive, loving, hysterical, and unappreciated character. Her willowy frame perfectly telegraphs her character’s manic tendencies and unwavering energy in finding a home for her son’s book. The manuscript becomes an emblem of her love and obsession with her son, its publication a means to right the wrongs she did to him in life. Through her, we see both the natural storytelling nature of the New Orleans character, and the redemptive qualities of art. Purl is a veritable firecracker, and gives an astonishing, ebullient performance.
Thelma’s charming, overbearing personality is what brings her to the Loyola University office of Walker Percy, the venerable writer who notably wrote about Southern life and alienation. This affecting scene, of two strangers bonding over unbearable loss, is the moment where grief and hope co-mingle. Purl and actor John Ingle (who resembles Percy) are magical and effortless here. Thelma has found someone to bring the book to life, and save her, as well.
- By Vivian Neuwirth
- Directed by Cat Parker
- Cast: Julia Randall, Ryan Spahn, Thomas G. Waites, Linda Purl, Stephen Schnetzer, John Ingle
- 59E59 Theater
- Until: March 15, 2020
- 110 minutes with intermission