Breaking up the box: Lee E. Ernst (right) belts out a larger-than-life performance as Frank Lloyd Wright in Work Song.
Breaking up the box: Lee E. Ernst (right) belts out a larger-than-life performance as Frank Lloyd Wright in Work Song.
Tim Fuller

The Wright Thing

Historical biographies are a tough sell. They must either entertain us with the fascinating story of a famous person, or tell us something new and interesting about someone we think we already know. Moreover, they must make us care about someone whose accomplishments may have exceeded his affability.

The hero of Arizona Theatre Company's Work Song: Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright, presented here in partnership with Missouri Repertory Theatre, is hardly a lovable character. Although he's transformed from an arrogant clod in Act One to a crusty curmudgeon in the final story, Wright remains a man who is never certain that mere mortals deserve to live in his magnificent houses.

Work Song's story, by Jeffrey Hatcher and Eric Simonson (who directs this production), is a triptych of portraits of the infamous Wright, each set in a different period of his life. Act One charts his early days as an up-and-coming draftsman who abandons his wife and children for a young beauty. In Act Two, he's an aged has-been who reclaims his career at the eleventh hour. The final story finds the elderly architect visiting a young couple in their Wright-designed home, which he wants to purchase from them in an imagined act of sentimentality.


Work Song: Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright

Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe

Continues through May 26. Call 602-254-7399

These stories become progressively more entertaining and less historically accurate as the program unfolds. The first is a poetic biography of Wright's early rise and fall, the second a conflated history of his late-middle period, and Act Three is a confection -- an entertaining what-if that is the show's best section.

Simonson and Hatcher focus on the paradox of Wright's life: His desire to create the perfect home for an American family led to the destruction of his own family life. This irony is framed by a proscenium arch that suggests both the foundation of some great Wrightian room and the warmth of a homey hearth. Beyond this setting, designer Kent Dorsey gradually builds a Wright home before our eyes: Early on, the set pieces are arty chairs and Wright-inspired rolling panels that match the animated energy of the players. In Act Two, flagstone walls and smooth sculptures appear; and the final story is set in a fully realized Wright home -- windowless, low-ceilinged and etched in stained glass.

The supporting cast members, most of them responsible for two or three roles each, are superb. Although Kate Goehring's impersonation of Ayn Rand comes off more like Natasha Badenough, her first-act Mamah Cheney is enchanting. Benjamin Stewart's magnificent presence and dynamic voice enliven Alexander Woollcott, who is given some of Simonson's and Hatcher's funniest lines. And Wendy Robie, last seen here a few seasons ago in Phoenix Theatre's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, is spellbinding as Olgivanna Wright, suggesting -- in a performance conveying both darkness and light -- that the last Mrs. Wright was a complex and fascinating character whose story deserves its own telling.

But these other people might as well be played by sock puppets when Lee E. Ernst is on stage, which he is nearly all evening. Ernst's striking performance in the title role yanks us through this always intriguing three-hour play with enough energy to light several tall buildings. That Ernst ages 70 years without the assistance of prosthetics is his most impressive feat, adding age with stance and demeanor, pursed lips and squinted eyes.

Kärin Kopishke clothes the cast in stunning, Wright-inspired costumes that, like the master's own work and Simonson's swift scene changes, are enhanced by many small, beautiful details. Work Song is likewise burnished with magnificent minutiae, its story a splendidly busy condensation of a complicated man's life.


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