Ugly beauty 

Director Joshua Kelly gives the controversial - and often unlikable - Look Back in Anger some love

John Osborne's Look Back in Anger creates a challenge for contemporary American theater audiences. The 1956 play follows Jimmy, a man raging against society. The story is rooted in the blue-collar culture of post-World War II Britain—a very specific time and place—but that's not the issue. The problem is Jimmy, who delivers belittling and violent tirades against everyone else on the stage.

"If you could have a child, and it would die," he says to his wife, Alison, at one point. "If only I could watch you face that."

Jimmy's viciousness is aimed at specific people in his life, but his approach is sometimes barbed with misogynistic and homophobic remarks, making him doubly unpopular—even as an antihero—among most enlightened audiences in 2015. In other words, it's hard to like the guy.

Director Joshua Kelly will stage Look Back in Anger this week, in the hall above the Union Club. For a heavy play, he says, access to drinks is key. (Kelly is joking. Kind of.) The director is keenly aware of the slippery nature of the play, but he defends it as a worthy character study. It's gotten little support, even in its day. A 1989 television movie version directed by Judi Dench and starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson flopped, and other than small revivals here and there, it's not a show that is often produced.

"The play deals with a number of people in a tiny space whose grievances and dissatisfaction with life emanate in more complex ways," Kelly says. "I'd like to think life works that way as well. I'm a social activist. Being a bisexual anti-theist, I'm part of repressed theories of society, and I could easily pick up a banner against it ... But as a director I have to be more objective than that. When I see a character like Jimmy say something like, 'There's nothing left for it, my boy, except to be butchered by the women,' I have to see this as a line taken within the context of one person's story and not a global commentary. If Jimmy were gay he would say the same things about men as he does about women. Every person in his life somehow suffocates him and he picks arbitrary pieces of their humanity to hate because he doesn't have any other way to lash out."

Kelly got his bachelor's degree in theater from Flathead Community College and he has directed local musicals like Evita and Bare: A Pop Opera, as well as the drama Proof and Leah Joki's one-woman show Prison Boxing. His decision to put on Look Back in Anger is a little more personal since he's currently writing about Osborne for his graduate thesis in theater at Eastern Washington University.

"Osborne's life was a drama within itself," Kelly says. "That's what intrigued me."

As it turns out, the character of Jimmy doesn't come out of thin air. Osborne had some antiquated and sexist views about the world and Look Back in Anger is considered autobiographical. But the playwright's desire to make theater a place for addressing post-war realism rather than as a form of escape—to push back against the status quo of the time—was what struck Kelly as a deeper layer to his worldview. His marriages to five different powerful women also adds a curious element to his story.

Osborne is most famous for his contribution to the Angry Young Men movement—a term created by journalists and generally hated by Osborne himself. The movement helped open up opportunities for playwrights, including female artists, to create and produce edgier work. It was a cerebral movement, not a violent one.

click to enlarge Mason Wagner, left, Thain Bertin and Alyssa Berdahl star in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Mason Wagner, left, Thain Bertin and Alyssa Berdahl star in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

"British theater for 10 years after World War II [focused on] comedies because everyone was psychologically recovering from the shock of war," Kelly says. "So theater wasn't very challenging. Then, suddenly, in 1956, this 25-year-old scrawls this blood-soaked invective and produces it, begging English society, 'Can we pretend to be human beings for five minutes? Can we feel something, please?' And that story became the mythology of John Osborne."

Kelly's production of Look Back in Anger stars two University of Montana theater students, Mason Wagner as Jimmy and Alyssa Berdahl as Alison. Audiences might recognize Wagner as Nick Carraway from Montana Rep's recent production of The Great Gatsby and Berdahl as the title character in the Rep's Welcome Home Jenny Sutter. The cast also includes Thain Bertin, who played Brad in last year's production of Rocky Horror Show, and Caroline Houser, a non-actor and friend of Kelly's whom he handpicked for the role of Helen, the houseguest. UM theater professor Jere Hodgin has a small role in the show—but getting him on board was a coup for Kelly.

"He taught me a lot," Kelly says. "He's a brilliant theater practitioner and so having him as part of the show really legitimizes the process for me."

Look Back in Anger deals with relationships—including a love triangle—in confined and suffocating spaces. All that raw anger feels ugly, but for Kelly, the potency of it stems from Osborne's brilliant way with words.

"The language is electrifying," he says. "The beauty of great dramatic prose is that even if you don't agree with its content whatsoever, you can appreciate its language. And John Osborne's vitriol was famous. There is no writer more brutally savage in his rhetoric when it comes to some characters tearing down other characters. It's nauseating at times because the language is so good."

The root of Jimmy's anger is, as with Osborne, about disappointment in life. And that part, no matter what year you live in, is a well-worn topic from literature to film, and in even the most pedestrian listicles.

"We talk, often in cliché terms, of how we have lost our humanity through technology and through our willing numbness," Kelly says. "It's very Huxley-esque. We put ourselves in distractions. It's a call to arms to really experience each other as humans and ourselves as humans and to feel and in a way that is engaged and purposeful and, in some ways, raging."

Roothead Studios presents Look Back in Anger at the Union Hall Thu., Sept. 17, through Sat., Sept. 19, at 6:30 PM nightly. $10 at the door.

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