By Quinn Rigg
Memory is a most critical component of the human condition that brings us together, or reminds us of why we’re apart—it influences our perspective through the past and drives our actions in the present.
We are all but the summation of our shared experiences; as such, our reminiscing of times gone by can lead to nostalgic highs, just as it can elicit phantom aches of what cannot be changed. Memory is often inaccurate; it is often permanent; it is always a vital aspect of identity.
The Theater Faction’s production of One Thousand Words attempts to both demonstrate the persistence of memory, as well as relate the issues past to the cultural wounds of today’s America. An ambitious concept, this musical endeavors to cover themes of duty and nationalism, infidelity, alienation, star-crossed romance, social justice and more in the span of two hours and twenty-five minutes.
The plot begins in present day, wherein young reporter Richard Hanks (played by Justin Stevens) is assigned the titular “one thousand word” article on a coal mining town called Winslow. Hanks goes to interview a resident of the area, old Warren Johnson (played by Gary Murphy), only to find more in his story than he bargained for.
As Old Warren reminisces on his life in and outside of Winslow, the story flashes back to the 1940s, to a younger Warren (portrayed by Brandon Campbell) and his best friend, Daniel Sanderson (played by Garrett Wade Haley). The two are unusually close in a town dominated by toxic masculinity—the pair leaves for New York to pursue their dreams, and a sudden romance evolves in the landscape of the socially diverse city. Warren and Daniel thrive in the city until the shroud of World War II hangs over the nation. Suddenly, Warren hears the call to action and enlists in the army on a whim, leaving his lover and the life he’s created—but Daniel promises to wait for Warren. After the war, Warren returns to Winslow, only to find that his beloved Daniel has also returned, having married an old friend, the kind and naive Elizabeth Morris, (played by Genna Guidry) out of desperation and solitude.
This choice is very confusing, in that it invalidates Daniel’s initial acceptance of himself and his identity as well as the undying loyalty that he swore to Warren (and not helped by the fact that it presents yet another sudden shift in tone and motivation). Daniel and Warren say one final, passionate goodbye to one another in the quarry, until they are outed by the town drunk. Daniel begs Warren to leave, as he claims that their past cannot be reclaimed; Warren complies, and thus ends the tragic memory of Warren’s lost love.
The musical ends in present day, with reporter Richard reflecting on the experience, musing on how his life has been changed by Warren’s story. He sings a call to action in an attempt to galvanize the audience to stand up for what’s right as phantoms of Warren’s past join him in song for the finale.
Though the ambition of Michael Braud’s book is admirable, ambition alone does not a good script make. One Thousand Words attempts to cover and comment on “one thousand issues,” just as the complex story seems to contain “one thousand plot points…” As such, the over-complication that Braud’s writing begets brings One Thousand Words “one thousand problems.” This musical suffers at the hand of its own ambition.
The lengthy synopsis is indicative of this script’s largest issue: an overcomplicated plot. The story’s meaning is constantly obfuscated by unnecessary subplots, undeveloped characters and inconsistent pacing, making the characters unrealistic, blurring the clarity of the musical’s message. Dialogue is often vapid and inorganic, given that characters often declare their objective and viewpoints outright, cloyingly preaching their beliefs, making unmotivated decisions. Actions such as joining the army for no reason, relinquishing undying love for a lifelong friend and partner only to then renew that vow after marrying another or talking about a friend’s love life while dying from a gunshot wound all appear shallow, distracting and without purpose. In short, the book lacks the degree of subtlety and subtext necessary to support the story in an intelligent, engaging, nuanced manner.
In lacking nuance, the characters are made unlikable, which is further evidenced by this musical’s lack of humor—all two and a half hours consist of the same preachy and ingenuine dramatics, in addition to pervasively abrupt pacing and inconsistent character motivations. Warren’s reasoning to go to war is unclear, and frankly, representative of the blind toxicity of nationalism; Daniel pledges and un-pledges and re-pledges his fidelity to far too many people far too quickly, indicative of the fact that the love triangle between Warren, Elizabeth and Daniel is messy and underdeveloped; furthermore, characters like Thomas Jones (the only character specifically written to be of color) are distilled to merely the function of their background—his character is undeveloped and exists solely to function as a preached statement on racism and inequality.
To further expound upon the absence of consistency, concision and scrutability, interspersed between the main plot elements are the interview scenes that frame Warren’s life story—the events of the main story, followed by their repercussions on Warren’s life in the present. Despite the potential for interesting storytelling and nuanced character development, the switching between past and present is a confusing and trite framing device when utilized in such a nefariously complicated plot. Rather than support the weight Warren’s traumatic experiences, the time jumps distract from the story at hand in order for old Warren to make vapid and inorganic commentary with the underdeveloped reporter Richard—which is disconcerting given that Richard is the catalyst for the story’s telling, as well as the envoy through which the audience connects to the story.
Musically, Braud’s book is not well supported either, given that the score, (written by Curran Latas) while pleasant and often uplifting, is written in a manner so homogenous that most songs are indistinguishable from one another, perhaps in part because of the very modest accompaniment of keyboard and drum set. Moreover, despite the fact that the majority of the story takes place in the 1940s, none of the music—lyrically or compositionally—reflects the time period, nor in the cultural settings that each scene is set. Though the pop/rock score is written well enough, it is written for something—and somewhere—else.
Jenna Schoppe’s choreography, while clean and concise, lacks believability, as the edges of each choreographed action fail to assist in immersive, human storytelling. Messy choreographic execution on part of ensemble members further demonstrates a lack of unity and professional polish.
However, despite this musical’s many flaws, the technical aspects are very commendable: lighting design from Benjamin Carne very aptly captures and supports the emotive levels of each scene, while accurately reflecting the many changing environments of Warren’s life; lighting and sound cues are clean and well-timed, and scene changes run smoothly.
Overall, One Thousand Words energetically attempts to say something about everything, yet fundamentally fails to deliver a clear, concise message about any of the subjects it so fervently illuminates. Thematically, there is much potential to capitalize of the poignancy of memory, or dreams, or whichever theme this musical should choose to focus on in later iterations, but that is only providing there are rewrites and revisions to the chaotic plot.
Provided it hones its thematic focus and boundless creative ambition, One Thousand Words could stand as a testament to the memories that bind us together — an affirmation of identity that challenges and validates our humanity.
Theatre Faction presents “One Thousand Words” through September 17 at Theater Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.