People with large book collections have to endure mysterious losses over the years. The one I regret most is my autographed paperback copy of “Mother Night.”
With a crinkly smile, Kurt Vonnegut signed my purchase at an Ann Arbor bookstore in 1968 or early 1969. It was the only prose writer’s autograph I’ve ever owned, having since focused on poets. Anyway, the author-inscribed novel is long gone from my bookshelves. Not among the Indianapolis master’s greatest fans (I can claim only to have read several of his books), I still nourish a pang over the disappearance of my “Mother Night.”
So there was a touch of nostalgia to my Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival visit Friday night to Phoenix Theatre‘s Basile (or Underground) Stage for Tom Horan’s adaptation of Vonnegut’s tangled story of personal identity and deception centered on Howard W. Campbell Jr., who fit into German society a little too well in the late 1930s and was tapped upon the American entrance into World War II to send coded messages to the Allies in his Nazi propaganda broadcasts. The author’s stated moral for “Mother Night” also provides a motto for the stage version: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Jeffery Martin plays Vonnegut’s entrapped playwright “hero” and Chelsea Anderson a bewildering variety of other roles, under the direction of Michael Hosp, in this presentation by the Vonnegut Museum and Library.
“As a playwright I should know when the hero has to die,” Campbell muses at one point. But the ambiguity of real life rarely pinpoints a good death, and often blurs many other things we wish were clearly defined. This is the theme Vonnegut elaborates in one of his darkly comic plots, which typically seem a little too much like artful contraptions for my taste. For the story Vonnegut had to tell here, however, his manner of storytelling seems perfect.
Horan’s choice to have an actress of Anderson’s versatility appear as Campbell’s wife Helga and her younger sister Resi, as the sly American spy recruiter, a New York cop on the beat, a sadistic American army lieutenant, et al. fit the shape-shifting scenario like a glove. Not all the novel’s characters and plot complications can be brought to the stage, of course, but the sacrifice doesn’t distort the original, to the best of my recollection.
Hosp has the two actors smoothly deployed in different settings and effecting a continuous blend of action and Campbellian reflection. Anderson was particularly adept at the two main female roles, but also made a strong impression as the popcorn-munching, trenchcoated agent of Campbell’s fraught double life. Martin had a few line bobbles opening night, and his intensity flagged occasionally, but overall he conveyed the character’s blend of cluelessness and the nimbleness that’s required when a man builds his life on pretense and must wrestle with personal authenticity — whatever that is, the ghost of Vonnegut might mutter.