American Reporter Staff
October 23, 2009
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If God was going to bring Jack Kerouac back to life, perhaps for Hallowe'en, there couldn't be a better place than St. Petersburg, where he died at 47 in an alcoholic stupor, outlived as all his siblings were by his mother, Gabrielle, the fierce "Ma Mère."
In David A. McElroy's one-man tour de force, Kerouac is not only revived but honored in his "presence."
The play is not a compendium of the writer's many millions of hastily-written words, as would be tempting, but a truly insightful hour-long examination of the inner life of one of America's greatest writers, the voice of the famed Beat Generation and inspiration to lifelong friends like poets Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other great wordsmiths - including the unsung Steve Allen, whose voice makes a brief appearance - of that era. His "On The Road" - 80,000 words written in three weeks - was for many years a bible of the Beat and Sixties lifestyle.
The play takes place in the "green room," if you will, of William F. Buckley's long-ago talk show, "Firing Line" in 1969 as Kerouac waits with a slim bottle of white wine to appear on the show with hippie icon Ed Sanders of The Fugs. But the stage is peopled only by the disembodied voices of Kerouac and his radiant life.
As chance would have it, I met Buckley in his own green room after one of his speeches and chatted with him for about 15 minutes; I met Ginsberg not only at the great Central Park Be-In in 1966 but while I was a Village Voice writer, covering his appearance with Gregory Corso at a 1970 memorial to Jack Kerouac at the Greer Garson Theatre in Santa Fe, N.M., and once again at a party that night. Gregory Corso, as I've written before, read my Tarot cards in Santa Fe one day and gave me some wonderful advice; I got to know him through his wife, a Santa Fe denizen of long standing. I even chatted with Steve Allen one night at a benefit for the New Ivar Theatre in Hollywood. But I had never met Kerouac, and tonight was the right time to do so.
A one-man show is hard enough to mount without having to play off the voices of the dead in the full embrace of delirium tremens, as Kerouac's character tries to explain his drunken and determinedly cheerful rant. We hear Ginsberg offended at his mother's table by her idiotic anti-Semitism ("Get out of my house!" she screams at him at the Kerouac dinner table one night; later, she threatened in a letter to report him to the FBI), a nameless hippie who sounds like Miles Davis, and Buckley himself in his unstudied Brahmin accent, honed at Yale. We hear Neal Cassady, the wild man of Kerouac's life and his companion throughout the journeys related in "On The Road," and all three of his wives, directly or indirectly, and his beloved sister Caroline, who died before him, his father Léo's dying plea to care for his destitute mother, and his loving brother, Gérard, who died at age nine. "He was weak," Kerouac says without a trace of condescension. "He was fragile." And so, though more battered than he should have been, was Kerouac in the straits of modern life.
There are anecdotes, too, including a funny one where Kerouac spots the "gleam in his eye" as Cassady starts to go off on the "hags" of three country farmers in a small cafe. And playing his third wife, unwittingly, was a woman in the audience, whom Kerouac draws out to dance a credible Greek thing as the audience claps in time and he relates the story of his third wife, Stella Sampas.
But most of all we hear the man, in words that were unfamiliar to me, raving in Buckley's green room and right on into the show. The well-knit commentary is never off-key, and is so compelling that at the end of the show one is startled to learn that it's over; it is very, very engrossing - so much so that I found my arms reaching out to catch him when he stumbled drunkenly to the floor. McElroy wears his hair pretty much as Kerouac did, in a shortish, straight-laced Catholic Republican sort of way, and his politics and his wildness are at war throughout.
As his own chorus, Kerouac - the "Jack, poor Jack" of Corso's elegiac poem - sings the praises of his mother, the woman he loves above all others, and in whose house he died in July 1969, three months after the Buckley interview. As the program notes indicate, Buckley betrayed him in true Republican fashion, waving away his effort to read his poetry - as he'd been invited to do - and instead playing on his unthought Republicanism to manhandle the hated hippies. Kerouac didn't truly cooperate, even though he had little use for them.
The show is at the American Stage, a handsome small theater in downtown St. Petersburg, a place full of hippie-influenced shops and restaurants decidedly dedicated to the pursuit of a good time. That was in part Kerouac's lifelong pursuit as well, and the breadth and depth of that journey, while not always fulfilled, are McElroy's stunning achievement. Don't miss this show if you loved the man. I'm glad I got to meet him.
End Of The Road, by Steve A. Rowell and David A. McElroy. Directed by Marylyn McGinnis for Southern Theatre Productions. Go to American Stage for showtimes. American Stage is located at 163 3rd St. N., 2nd Floor. The play runs through Oct. 24. Admission is based on one's ability to pay. Street parking is free.