A friend of the famous poet Carl Sandburg once commented that trying to write about him briefly was like trying to picture the Grand Canyon in one black and white snapshot. And judging from all the material squeezed into the production "The Eagle In Me: An Evening with Carl Sandburg" at In Tandem Theatre through Oct. 21, well-known Milwaukee actor Jonathan Gillard Daly feels much the same way.
Daly is both the adapter and the only performer in the two-hour tribute to Carl Sandburg, an American legend whom the actor has long admired. Sandburg was an accomplished writer, journalist, biographer and collector of folk music. He also won three Pulitzer Prizes over the course of his colorful career – which included stints as a soldier, hobo, housepainter, stereopticon salesman, milk deliveryman, socialism advocate and war correspondent, among other occupations.
But Sandburg, once called the "voice of America," has not maintained the popularity of other distinctly American authors and storytellers, such as Mark Twain or Walt Whitman. Daly is trying to change that, with heartfelt performances of some of Sandburg’s most well-known poetry, as well as an entertaining story of this jack-of-all-trades. Just as Sandburg himself hosted evenings of his writing interspersed with folk songs he’d collected, Daly presents key moments of Sandburg’s life and snippets of his philosophy with American musical standards such as "John Henry," "I Was Born Almost 10,000 Years Ago," "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" and "Hallelujah I’m a Bum."
In a burgundy coat and bowtie over a gray shirt and suspenders, Daly indeed looks and sounds like he could be strolling down the main street in Sandberg’s home of Galesburg, Illinois, in the early 20th century. As Sandburg, he celebrates all that’s great about America, dispenses pithy axioms like "stay out of jail" and "sleep often and well," and comments on the injustices he’s witnessed due to racism, wars, grave economic disparity, mistreatment of workers and restrictions on free speech.
The tone of the show is lighthearted for the first half and progressively more serious after intermission but never heavy-handed. Daly recites Sandburg’s poems like a true believer, reveling in the imagery and evocative language, painting vivid pictures for his audience.
Then, to segue from subject to subject, he frequently grabs his guitar and strums a folksy melody. According to Daly’s script, Sandburg taught himself four chords on the guitar and didn’t see the need to learn any more. This basic approach to fairly basic music is carried through the show; Daly starts almost every song on a G chord, throwing in D and C for variety. His clear, pleasant voice animates each song, although during the opening weekend Daly’s fingers had trouble keeping up with the tunes, frequently groping for the right strings.
Scenic designers Chris and Jane Flieller (who are also In Tandem’s artistic director and producing director) have given the Daly a lot of furniture and set pieces to act around — from a park bench to a rocky outcropping in the woods, to a rocking chair, bookcase and small wooden desk for his '30s era typewriter. And director Gale Childs Daly also keeps the actor on the move as he bounds from one side of the stage to the other with real enthusiasm.
Unfortunately all of these elements don’t add up to a very compelling show. The script reads like a poetic Wikipedia entry, interesting but not emotionally engaging. And both the repetitive rhythm of the story/song/poem/repeat is tiresome, each anecdote and verse blurring into the next over two hours. The disconnected set pieces, combined with clumsy projections and a cheesy mural along one wall look like a desperate attempt to keep the audience’s interest, highlighting the team’s insecurity with the material. Connecting Sandburg to Milwaukee certainly resonates with locals (he worked for the city’s first socialist mayor, Emil Seidel) and emphasizing social themes that plague us currently gets our attention but only intermittently.
Daly clearly loves the material – and there’s lots of good stuff there – but he hasn’t found a way to make it dramatic. And his energetic performance can’t make up for that missing piece.