THEATER | Savage Umbrella’s “Leaves”: A superb Whitman sampler


This is the danger, and the joy, of going to see theater with a group of playwrights. If I’d just gone by myself to see Savage Umbrella’s latest production, Leaves, I would have loved it without reservation and gone home and spent most of my time writing this review by trying to come up with new ways to say “great” and “brilliant” and “funny” and “romantic” and “lush” and “lyrical” and “melancholy” and “gorgeous.”

Because I like Leaves—a whole lot. Almost as much as I like Savage Umbrella—which is also a whole lot.

But because I went to Leaves with three writer friends of mine, we then adjourned to the pizza place across the street and engaged in a spirited debate about the production: two of us loved it, and it drove the other two of us crazy. We spent at least as much time as the show itself, ninety minutes, maybe more, hashing over all the component parts of Leaves, trying to figure out why it prompted such strong, opposing responses in us.

leaves, presented at the playwrights’ center through september 12. for tickets ($12-$18, sliding scale) and information, see

Some of the things that bugged my friends about Leaves, I didn’t even notice. Other things I noticed, but the same reasons they didn’t like it were the reasons I loved it. It seems there’s no middle ground on this one. We tried to talk each other around, or at least explain, and nothing stuck. It’s the weirdest thing.

A lot of it had to do with labels. “What is it?” one of my friends cried out. “Is it a musical?”

No, I don’t think so. It’s a play with music. A lot of music. It sometimes behaves like a musical, but it’s not a traditional American musical. Savage Umbrella integrates music as an element of the overall spectacle. You can do things with music that you can’t do with words alone, even poetry.

And Leaves, at its core, was birthed from poetry. Specifically, the poetry of Walt Whitman‘s epic love poem to the country of America, Leaves of Grass. Cracking open my copy of Leaves of Grass, I saw that the dust jacket described it as “the most highly praised and the most heartily damned book that America has ever produced.” It seems that Savage Umbrella was channeling the spirit of their source in a big way.

The one thing we all agreed on was that the performers were amazing. Some of the frustration from the other side of the table centered on the fact that “the actors were working so damn hard, why did the play not support them the way it should?” Personally, I didn’t see the letdown.

When Leaves started, I must admit, I had a moment of “Oh God, they’re not just going to be reciting poetry all night dressed as archetypes, are they?” (The soldier, the waitress, the businessman, the sassy single lady, the lesbian vegan blogger, the poet.) Then, “Oh God, they’re not just going to sing and recite poetry all night, are they?”

No. No, they are not.

The opening poetry/musical salvo, “Every Leaf a Miracle,” quickly dissolves into intimate scenes with just a couple of characters each. Okay, here’s where attribution gets muddy. It’s an ensemble-created work, co-conceived and co-directed by Bryan Grosso and Laura Leffler-McCabe. Written by Tanner Curl with Blake E. Bolan and Thomas Borger. Music by Candace Bilyk, Amber Davis, Russ Dugger, Emily Dussault, and Ben Mattson. Lyrics by all the music people, plus Leffler-McCabe. And all of this owes a huge, sweeping debt to Walt Whitman. In fact, the level of debt to Whitman was another thing that gave my friends fits. Because if you didn’t read the director’s notes, you wouldn’t find Whitman mentioned in the program at all. Which did seem odd. If you had a copy of the script and all the Whitman material was in red and all the original material was in blue, how much red would you see? How much blue? Or is the whole thing so blended that it’s all purple? It’s hard to know. One other thing we all had in common was a desire to go to Leaves of Grass and see for ourselves.

But the story, you ask?

A great old man, Abe, has died. Those who loved him gather for his memorial service. We touch so many different people over the course of our lives that some of them are bound to be so different they have a hard time being in the same room together. Abe’s little slice of America is no different, and includes: His adult grandchildren, Maeple (pronounced like the syrup) (Amber Davis) and Birch (Bryan Grosso); whose parents (mentioned, and alive, and yet strangely never seen) were clearly tree-hugging hippie types. Grand-niece Jillian (Katharine Moeller), an army medic just back from the war, though the other reason why she’s back from the war isn’t what you’d think. Birch’s estranged, soon to be ex-wife, Ashleigh (Emily Dussault), childhood friend of Maeple and Jillian, sharing custody of her children with Birch and harboring a secret dream of finding her fortune in the Nashville music industry. Bek (Laura Leffler-McCabe), a former student of Abe’s, come to pay her respects, and ruffle as many feathers as possible in the process. And Whit (Russ Dugger), who may or may not be Walt Whitman, a barefoot traveler who wanders the countryside and somehow makes it a little more acceptable for people to utter, and go after, their dreams—assuming, of course, that they want to. Not everybody wants to.

Whit sets loose a lot of the songs and poetry that pepper the evening’s proceedings. Live music on viola (Candace Bilyk) and guitar (Timothy Kennedy) throughout pretty much had me swooning and happy to be there as an audience member. (The singing voices and harmonies were another thing our whole divided group could agree were lovely and transporting. One other thing we all agreed on: the lighting by Ariel Pinkerton was stunning. It shifted with the mood and locations and characters of the play in a variety of colorful, clever and fluid ways. Present, but never distracting. Really well done.)

“Who’s the antagonist?!”

“I think they’re all their own worst enemy.”

“Why does Bek have to be so unlikeable and rude right out of the gate in her first scene? We’re supposed to like her after that?”

“The play is about America. Right now in America we are awash in people who just say whatever they feel like and launch it onto the Internet and 24-hour news stations and reality TV shows because they have no personal filter. Those people were always with us, it’s just now, they all have blogs, so it’s harder to escape them. But they are not irredeemable people. They are not without the capacity for love, and understanding. They just have to learn to shut their mouths and actually listen to other people. Which is what the play is also about.”

Why is Whit even there?! He serves no purpose. You could just pull him out of the play and you’d never miss him. Maeple the waitress serves the same function.”

“I disagree. Maybe Whit is not the catalyst he could be, actually driving the engine of the story, but I don’t think you hear the same things from a friend or a relative, the same way you hear them come out of the mouth of a complete stranger. He’s the spirit of poetry and music that enters this community and sets poetry and music loose in this collection of people all going through major transitions in their lives.”

“But it’s all so… earnest.”

“Yeah. But I like that.”

“I was almost embarrassed for them.”

“I wasn’t.”

“It was sometimes painful.”

“Not for me.”

The video element drove everyone in our group—except for me—nuts. I saw it as a collection of images of America: farms and factories and forests and eagles and military hardware and presidents (both Bush and Obama, because we are nothing if not a contradictory people). It also provided a sense of place—images of a diner, images of a family home (or two), images of the woods—but it was sometimes literal and sometimes not. It was a constant presence my friends found either distracting or confusing or both. For some reason, it didn’t bother me a bit. After all, it was tucked in a high corner of a makeshift muslin flat. If you wanted to, you could almost ignore it. None of us did. Some of us wished they could.

The script, for me, was delightful in the way it subtly introduced the relationships between characters. No spoon-feeding of exposition here. We learn as we go, and put the pieces together, much like Whit would do, meeting these people for the first time. There is romance and betrayal and loss and longing and acceptance and intolerance. A couple of friends felt like the script introduced Whit, and then started to backtrack away from him, as if the company didn’t feel they could whole-heartedly embrace Whit’s way of living his life without seeming unrealistic. So some characters were allowed to refer to him as “the weird guy.” I didn’t see that as undercutting Whit so much as it exposed the other characters and how invested they were in staying the way they are. Some of the characters were still too wrapped up in their pain to be ready to question if they really had to continue living their lives this way, or could they change, for the better. Change, particularly in a time of mourning, is a scary thing. Change in general is scary. Some people embrace it, some people run from it. Some want to go forward, some want to retreat. Just look at the national political dialogue right now. Leaves tackles this in a human form we can relate to. It takes the “big ideas” that make up this country and makes them personal.

Leaves is a sweet little story about the passing of one generation, and the struggle of the next to figure out who and what they are. It’s a poetic, musical valentine to love, and the country of my birth, where I live and also struggle to figure out who and what I am, and who and what I want my country to be. It’s the kind of show I wish was running for more than just one weekend, so catch it while you still can, because it comes very highly recommended.