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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    A poetic performance: Gordon Clapp delivers brilliant Frost portrayal at The Kate

    Gordon Clapp played Robert Frost Sunday in the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center. (submitted)

    On a hot and feloniously humid July afternoon, there was no way to stop by any snowy woods and cool off. Better, then, to head to the air-conditioned Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook.

    There, 75-year-old actor Gordon Clapp charmed a full house in an eponymous tour-de-force presentation of Andy Dolan’s one-man play “Robert Frost: This Verse Business.” Gus Kaikkonen directed the production.

    Over the course of 80 minutes, Clapp empathetically inhabited the persona of one of America’s most famous poets — a dry-witted, staunchly-New-England personality who won four Pulitzer Prizes and delivered “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. By then, Frost had enjoyed decades of celebrity as he toured three continents reciting his work and sharing anecdotes and off-the-cuff political and social commentary.

    In the first half of the production, set in 1962, the year before he died, Frost directly addressed the audience in what must have been typical of one of his tour stops. The set was at the lip of the stage in front of the closed curtain and featured a lectern in the center and an armchair, positioned stage right, next to a small table with a flowerpot and a pitcher of water.

    For the latter half, the curtain was raised, and we were transported inside a barn next to Frost’s Vermont farmhouse. There, amidst a milking can and stool, a lantern and sundry farm implements, Dolan broadened the range of the show by having his character delve more deeply into creative process as it evolved through the reflective prism of Frost’s sorrows and regrets as a widower.

    Frost in the flesh

    Clapp, who won an Emmy as Detective Greg Medavoy in “NYPD Blue,” portrayed the elderly poet with a shock of white hair, a dark suit and the slow, careful movements of one as comfortable as possible with life’s aches and pains. He shifted from behind the podium to a stage-left perspective, and then back across to sit in the chair and sip water. He gestured familiarly, often with one of his books in hand, and his facial expressions were both puckish and amused.

    Throughout, of course, were the poems. Clapp read or recited 15 iconic pieces throughout including “Away!,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Mending Wall,” “Home Burial” and “The Objection to Being Stepped On.”

    His recitation of the long narrative piece “The Death of the Hired Hand” was a stunning dramatic revelation as Clapp eloquently played the roles of the characters within ― strongly demonstrating how much more effective poetry can be when read aloud.

    Beyond verse

    Audience members frequently nodded with recognition or quietly recited along, for in many ways there were elements of a concert-style greatest hits set list. But beyond just highlight moments, they served as segues to a wealth of Frost’s thoughts and asides. The latter were delivered with sly but folksy amusement that seemed equally divided by self-effacement and “gotcha” observations. Frequently, he emphasized one point or another with a conspiratorial, “See?”

    There were numerous “wink-wink” asides about Democrats and New England politics, but Clapp’s demeanor took on a sort of reverential glow when he talked about poetry and art in general, and there was a sense of shared secrecy when he talked about rhymes and couplets, meter, free verse and blank verse.

    Getting personal

    In the second half, more casually attired, Clapp movingly delivered “The Pasture” with its haunting “You come, too” refrain, as though to let us know we were about to learn a great deal more about his private life.

    Sprinkling in more poems, he sat in a rocking chair or paced as he forthrightly addressed the tragedies of his family; his wife Elinor predeceased him, and three of their five children also died before he did. His son Carol committed suicide, and throughout Clapp’s pain was subdued but palpable.

    Frost/Clapp eventually brought his ruminations full circle and returned to the creative process and its therapy. Writing poems wasn’t something he could just do, he said, but he knew when one was coming ― and in fact he sensed it right then. He settled on the milk stool with a sheet of paper and a pencil and his face transformed sequentially over emotions like wonder and possibility and calculation.

    Then Clapp looked up and faced us and, just before the stage went dark, he smiled and said, “This could take a while.”

    r.koster@theday.com

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