The Master Builder

'Work Song' shows that Frank Lloyd Wright was his own most controversial creation.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright didn't require a muse; all he needed was a deadline. So observes one character in Work Song, a new play about Wright at Arizona Theatre Company, receiving only its second production.

But don't trust that comment, even though it comes from Wright's third and longest-lasting wife. As sketched by authors Eric Simonson and Jeffrey Hatcher, Wright was a womanizing, profligate egotist (this is widely known) who regarded himself as his own muse; yet an emptiness lay at his core, like the chimney always at the center of his so-called Prairie Houses, and that emptiness marked the loss of the love of his life.

Wright designed every element of his buildings, down to the geometric stained-glass windows and desperately uncomfortable chairs, and Work Song itself could be a Frank Lloyd Wright design. The play seems elegantly constructed but sags and leaks in the middle; still, it is crafted with both care and audacity, and ultimately proves to be moving despite its obvious calculation.

Each of the three acts--it's a three-hour show, counting intermissions--has a distinct character and pace.

The first act is fast-moving biography. It covers Wright's early career and first two important romantic liaisons, sweeping like the prairie wind across the years 1887 to 1914. Scenes change rapidly; up to 20 people fly across the stage like comets pulled briefly into Wright's orbit; scenery is fluid, mainly a set of wheeled panels in Wright's early-mature style, all narrow, vertical wood rails; projected images of drawings, completed houses and fire haunt the background.

Though his career Wright's aesthetic intensified its Japanese severity, stripping away excess ornament, and likewise the play gradually adopts cleaner, longer lines. The second act covers barely 24 hours in 1935, as Wright--whose studio is all theory and activity, but no paying work--farcically manipulates his friends, students and neighbors into helping him save Taliesin, his estate, from bank foreclosure. The final, shortest act, set in 1957, is reduced to three main characters: the 90-year-old Wright trying to save a house he'd designed half a century before from a dull young couple who'd recently purchased it. Here, the play has made the journey into pure fiction.

Just why was Wright's career stalled in the 1930s? Well, there was the Depression, not to mention Wright's obnoxious personality, but Work Song's second act suggests something made more explicit in its third: lost love. Early in the century, Wright left his wife and children for Mamah Cheney, the wife of a client. An almost career-breaking scandal resulted, but Wright recovered and was just crystallizing his architectural theories when Mamah and six others were killed at Taliesin, which itself was destroyed by fire.

The second act is frankly expendable. The characters other than Wright are drawn too broadly; Russian émigrées Ayn Rand and Olgivanna Wright come off like Natatasha Fatale and Boris Badenov, respectively--and Olgivanna's a woman. These middle scenes tell us little about Wright that we haven't already learned.

The first and third acts, though, constitute a beautiful dramatic arch, initially ornate but ultimately curving back down into a spare emotional symmetry. The young Wright's first-act encounter with Mamah and her husband echoes through the old Wright's third-act meeting with the 1950s couple; in both scenes, the architect and the woman come to an understanding beyond the comprehension of the mundane husband.

In The Future of Architecture, Wright defined several terms key to his concept of organic architecture, a way of designing that springs from a building's locale and, in his case, the American character. One of his concepts was "romance," by which he meant the individual's creative force as it is manifested in architecture. Playwrights Simonson and Hatcher obviously have a more traditional, theatrical notion of "romance," but it works well as a metaphorical extension from Wright's career into his life and back again.

Simonson himself directs this production with a unity of expression almost worthy of Wright, who was fond of saying "Form and function are one." Overlooking the misguided second act, every touch is finely considered and integrated, particularly Kent Dorsey's scenic design, which evokes Wright's style even with the sparest materials; John Boesche's projections; and Korby Myrick's selection of music.

The cast, above all, supports the play's structure with distinction and verve. As Wright, Lee E. Ernst is onstage almost the entire time, aging from 20 to 90 as much through voice and movement as through makeup. His Frank Lloyd Wright is a dreadful person yet undeniably charismatic, even while pretending not to be haunted by loss. Kate Goehring stands out as Mamay Cheney, something of a Victorian flower child with a tougher stem than you'd expect. Equally impressive are Kirsten Potter as Wright's strong-willed first wife and the similarly sturdy if misunderstood '50s housewife, and Wendy Robie as Wright's mother and final wife, two characters who could be described, as is the mother, as "a hard piece of rock."

Early in his career, Wright favored windows that let in light without affording a view out to other men's dismal designs. Work Song shows us a Wright who took what he wanted from the outside yet closed himself off from unpleasant realities. It's self-conscious and flawed, yet honest and heartbreaking and affirming. The play is a fitting portrait of a man who correctly but insufferably fancied himself America's greatest architect.

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