Wednesday, October 3, 2018

From Page to Stage: One Flower’s Transplant

“This feels like a play. You should make it a play.”


Ben Salus and Bradley Johnson Kiss by Joseph Arbo
Photo by Joseph Arbo.
That’s been the most oft-repeated comment from audience members over the past four-and-a-half years as the love of my life, Chuck Muckle, and I presented our dramatized reading of my WWI novel Flower of Iowa across America and in Europe. 

And now, incredibly, it’s happened.

It all started when I got an email in May from Gene Fisch, Jr., the director of the New York New Works Theatre Festival, where Chuck and I presented three productions in 2016 and 2017, making the semifinals both years. One of those works, my play In Love with the Arrow Collar Man, enjoyed a run at Theatre 80 in New York’s East Village in late 2017.


Lance Ringel and Gene Gene Frisch, Jr
Gene wanted to know if we had a 25-minute segment to submit to the 2018 Festival. Frankly, I was distracted by all that we were trying to do with Flower of Iowa in this final year of the Great War Centennial, notably securing a reading in Paris during the Gay Games. But then that persistent comment from appreciative audiences came back to me: This feels like a play. 

What if I adapted the saga of Tommy Flowers and David Pearson to the stage?

What transpired then, like the novel itself, is history. 

Gene loved the idea, and the festival panel accepted the play into competition. I adapted my own words, surprising myself with how easily I could take dialogue verbatim and compress the action of the novel’s first several chapters into a short play. Chuck, who knows the book almost as well as I do, stepped up to be the show’s director.


Ben Salus and Bradley Johnson by Joseph Arbo
Ben Salus (left) & Bradley Johnson (right).
Photo by Joseph Arbo.
But nothing could have prepared us for the two remarkable young actors we cast. These performers of consummate sensitivity and skill — Ben Salus as Tommy and Bradley Johnson as David — created what no production budget can buy: the ineffable chemistry that made audiences believe they were witnessing the sweetest of loves blossoming in the most nightmarish of circumstances. Their extraordinary acting was complemented by Chuck’s superb direction; he has an uncanny sense of creating spatial relationships on a bare stage.  

Reviewers noticed, too; Jeffery Lyle Segal wrote in Times Square Chronicles, “The dialogue was honest and real.  The two young actors, Ben Salus and Bradley Johnson, are both very touching under the subtle and tasteful direction of Chuck Muckle.”


Flower Of Iowa Program
Of course, this success didn’t happen overnight. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes work. This included a journey to the wonderful TDF Costume Collection at the Kaufman Astoria Studios — a piece of Old Hollywood in Queens — to find exactly the right field caps and puttees to establish WWI authenticity.  And there were inevitable disruptions. An opening night kerfuffle with projections led us to dispense with that element entirely at subsequent performances. But our team efforts ultimately paid off: Flower of Iowa (the play) made the finals of the 2018 New York New Works Theatre Festival, earning accolades through three rounds of performances.  

Now I find myself under pressure to write a full-length stage version of the novel! That would be an intriguing challenge — but it’s just one of several options going forward. 

One thing is for certain, though: now that Bradley and Ben have brought Davey and Tommy so exquisitely to life in a whole new medium, the Flower of Iowa story is far from over.