Premiere production of Alfred Keyser’s “Before Steepletop” celebrates the haunting allure of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Arthur Keyser’s “Before Steepletop” is an unabashed love letter to Edna St. Vincent Millay. In case you’re wondering, Millay was an early 20th-century American poet — and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Poetry aside, she was a larger-than-life personality.
Millay was a free spirit who believed in free love. Surprisingly, she didn’t write free verse. While her poems dealt with bohemian subject matter, they followed conventional rhyme schemes. That was probably the only conventional thing about her.
Along with writing beautiful verse, Millay was physically beautiful. Men and women alike were attracted to her. (I get the sense the playwright also feels a tug of the heartstrings.) Since he can’t go back in time, Keyser’s created a stand-in for himself in this original play. The playwright can’t meet Millay. But his fictional proxy can.
Sheldon (Ron Pearson) is the character’s name. He’s a naïve Southerner, away from home for the first time in New York City. He winds up in the same boarding house as Millay (Johana Davila). He has aspirations of being a poet, but not the talent. His ambitions quickly cool when he meets the real deal. Sheldon falls head over heels in love with Millay at their first encounter. But Millay keeps him at arm’s length — though she definitely has feelings for him. Their love stays unrequited for a long time.
After a stormy start, Sheldon and Millay have periodic encounters over the years. Keyser punctuates their meetings with quotes from Millay’s poems, projected on a screen at the back of the stage. In the context of the drama, the quotes take on real-world significance. Millay is a woman artist, and the odds are stacked against her. She wants freedom in every form — sexual freedom included. Millay also wants the glamorous lifestyle she’s grown accustomed to. If that means a marriage of convenience to a millionaire, so be it.
Millay’s poems express her philosophy. As pretty as it is, it’s a philosophy of pure selfishness. Sheldon’s frustrated reactions show the human cost of that way of life.
Don Walker directs with a dreamy, otherworldliness. The tone perfectly suits the material. The playwright was clearly haunted by Millay, and his play is full of ghosts. Although his drama springs from the real world, it’s never meant to be realistic. Walker perfectly captures the ethereal fabric of Keyser’s waking dream.
Davila and Pearson deliver outstanding performances as the great poet and her greatest (and most frustrated) fan. They show real chemistry together. You can feel the heat (and frustration) each time they take the stage. Kudos also to the supporting cast. Jenny Aldrich Walker, Bob Fahey and Sandra Musicante are perfect as the lesser mortals in the playwright’s dream of doomed love.
Keyser’s play lights a candle to a beautiful soul. He does so without airbrushing away Millay’s faults. It’s a gutsy artistic choice. The poet’s light shines clearer and brighter because of it.