If theater reviews were only confined to two words, those would be the two I would use to review the plot, the theme and the controversial subject matter of Pound – a play about the twentieth century expatriate American poet accused of treason - at Theatre Row.
Pound discovered and helped shape the work of such modernist literary giants as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. His own work according to scholars, especially the Pisan cantos, will stand the test of time. But no amount of artistic achievement can erase the stain he brought upon himself and his career by making hundreds of antisemitic radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini’s fascism, Hitler and Nazism.
In Pound we come upon the poet (Christopher Lloyd) in the twelfth year of his confinement at St. Elisabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, DC, where he has been deemed unfit to stand trial. His doctor has diagnosed him as incurable, extending his stay indefinitely, permanently putting off the possibility of the death penalty for his actions. Except that his regular doctor is on a vacation in Africa when the play opens and has been replaced by Ann Polley (Kate Abbruzzese), a young woman psychiatrist intent on being true to her profession and finding a cure for the “incurable” literary figure.
Pound is dismissive, jocular, arrogant, and entertaining by turns. He has made a world for himself out of his hospital confines. We are told that he has a coterie of followers with like-minded political views who visit him and feed his ego. He regularly insults his nurse, Nurse Priscomb (Cynthia Darlow), who, nevertheless, we feel has a certain fondness for him. He has periodic visits from the poet Archibald MacLeish (Redman Maxfield), a lawyer by training, who represents the group of Pound’s literary friends who persist in trying to get him released.
The heart of the play is in the conversations that take place between the young psychiatrist and her renowned patient. When he finds out that her father was a poet and that the young doctor had poetic aspirations herself we see the generous Pound emerge as he urges her not to give up her original impulse and even offers to guide her in this pursuit, much as he must have done for the many names we know of those he brought along, but she has a different agenda.
These conversations bring up age-old debates going back to the salons of the renaissance designed around the importance of art that then ask what is more important than art. If there is a criticism of the play it might be that these exchanges go on a little too long, but what they do is change the focus from the life of the famous poet to that of the young psychiatrist, with its revelations. For the first time Pound is given pause, something rare, and we see in his facial expression expertly displayed by Lloyd, the insular tower the master has built out of words without understanding their true effects on the lives of others. Suddenly, the play becomes timely for us.
The acting is excellent throughout. There are moments when a gesture or an utterance by Lloyd makes us chuckle to ourselves when it slightly echoes Jim in taxi. This does not distract. It makes us feel grateful to have the actor before us in this challengingly serious role. Redman Maxfield perfectly embodies MacLeish’s perplexity at what has brought Pound to this place and moment in time. Cynthia Darlow as the dutiful nurse with attitude succeeds in giving us glimpses of a life off-stage and the life decisions that have brought her here. Kate Abbruzesse is virtuous, appealing and revealing as she subtly controls the action of the play.
(Photo by Jason Woodruff)