BALLAD OF SOAPY SMITH - Play in three acts by Michael Weller, directed by Robert Egan, scenery by Eugene Lee, costumes by Robert Blackman, lighting by Spencer Mosse, songs by Michael Weller, score by Norman Durkee, produced by the Seattle Repertory Theater, Seattle, Wash., through Nov. l9.
SEATTLE - Michael Weller's "The Ballad of Soapy Smith" is a Gold Rush melodrama about a legendary con man known - rather more staidly - as Jefferson Randolph Smith (l860-l898). If, in its world premiere at the Seattle Rep, Weller's sprawling epic seems perfectly suited to its rustic but sophisticated Northwestern setting, that's not by accident. The script was developed last year during a Seattle Rep workshop, then chosen to open the company's impressive new $l0-million theater. Beyond this cosy provincialism, "Soapy Smith" is a rip-roaring play about megalomania and power, a Wild West show with something more on its mind than six-shooters and revenge.
Weller picks up his charismatic hero just a year before his death. As a somewhat mysterious presence in the Klondike, Smith arrives in Skagway, Alaska, alert to the town's possibilities. (Memorably described by Jack London, Skagway was a way-station leading to the Yukon gold fields.) Perfectly willing and eloquently able to pan gold dust out of the palms of prospectors, Smith elects a more devious plan. With steady assurance and easy reliance on hypocrisy, he becomes - or appears to become - a benevolent townsman, "Good Citizen Smith." By any definition he's the ultimate politico, a grafter sliding by on charm while grasping everything in reach. The subtext of Weller's play is an instant-history on the making of a politician. As someone says of him, Soapy Smith bends "truth into shapes never before seen on this earth."
As a cover he owns and operates a restaurant, Jeff Smith's Oyster Parlour. His coterie includes con artists like himself, and the town's madame. He forms his own "army" as a force against the moralizing (yet murderous) Skagway vigilantes. He wins friends and influences people, including an upstanding citizen named Burke Gallagher who, despite his admiration of Smith, sees him for what he is. As Weller has constructed his play, Gallagher is Smith's nemesis; in vague Pirandellian shadows, he's also Smith's dormant conscience. Although Smith never rises beyond self interest, never advances so much as a small step toward nobility, he eventually becomes troubled by his lack of soul. At one point he says, "If I'm truly no more than what I am now, it's been a sorry little journey indeed." He knows his life has been "bullshit" and: "All the way to hell he sees clearly what he is."
Michael Weller tells Soapy Smith's story through the device of a narrator, Paul Anthony MacAleer, a minor poet given to doggerel. (Weller credits MacAleer's verse as part of the play's inspiration.) The device is effective principally because MacAleer is not just an outside observer, not just someone bearing witness; instead, as an "uncultured dirt-farmer from Nebraska," he's a fully developed character whose life in Skagway is pivotal to the plot. MacAleer's thickly sentimental poem about Smith is, finally, revealed for what it is, dumb, sugary versifying, the opposite side of the far more complicated, vinegary truth. This revelation, by the way, is made by MacAleer's subject himself. Soapy Smith has been educated, he knows "The Aeneid," and he's brash enough to describe poetry as good propaganda. But when he hears MacAleer's couplets, he describes them as "rhyming flapdoodle."
Beneath the often familiar scenes of Weller's play (backroom skulduggery, streetside brawls, political meetings, whispering whores, hang-'em-high justice), there's a still familiar but sharply dramatic focus. "The Ballad of Soapy Smith" is not merely about "the vital spirit that marks the adventurous beginnings of the Pacific Northwest," as one Rep press release has it. In a very real sense Weller's play is about the contradictions that are the basis for the whole country. Weller's play begins in easy, beguiling myth (MacAleer's awful honorific) and ends in brute reality (Soapy Smith's murder). What we witness en route is not America's coming of age but, rather, the repetitions of history as old as the con artistry of Julius Caesar and as new as the bunko oratory of Ronald Reagan. Michael Weller finds raucous splendor in his epic (that's the come-on, the entertainment), then, to his credit, he plays it cool, cynical, straight.
Under Robert Egan's direction "The Ballad of Soapy Smith" has been given exactly the bustling production it needs. Eugene Lee's set is an open-rafter marvel (with a huge blow-up of the snow-capped Klondike just up a center-stage ramp), a variant copy of other timbered sets Lee has done for the Trinity Square Repertory. Denis Arndt is wonderful as Soapy Smith; spellbinding, in fact, and good enough to make us care about this corrupt and venal man. Denis Arndt catches Soapy Smith's larger-than-life radiance and plays it for a kind of low voltage ease. Ted D'Arms is fine as Burke Gallagher, whose goodness owes a debt to a dark secret. Christopher Cooper is fine, too, as MacAleer, and there's good work from Kate Mulgrew, Paul Hofstetl, Kevin Tighe. The cast has 33 actors, and there are some less than ideal performances but the level of acting is pretty admirable.
"The Ballad of Soapy Smith" is probably too big, too populous for Broadway, and it doesn't belong there in the first place. As an example of homegrown regional theater, it has its own weight and conviction. It sings a variant song of a man - and a country - trapped in his own myth and inevitably paying the price. It's the Faust legend echoing from purple mountain majesty, from sea to shining sea.