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Rockwell Kent's time in Winona subject of new play (01/23/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
     Carew Halleck, left, will play Rockwell Kent in a play by Lynn Nankivil, center, titled "Angels in the Trees."

Ken McCullough, right, also has a role.

"He was a man who wanted it all and couldn't settle," Carew Halleck says of his character, Rockwell Kent, in the upcoming original play by Lynn Nankivil, "Angels in the Trees: Rockwell Kent in Winona." The play will be shown February 8-10 at the Historic Masonic Theatre as part of the Rockwell Kent Centennial Celebration.

Halleck, an owner of Mugby Junction, and Nankivil describe Kent as a disarmingly charismatic man with a penchant for trouble. He came to Winona in 1912 as the liaison from the New York architect designing the Prentiss and Bell Briarcombe mansions in Pleasant Valley.

However, his more memorable exploits while in Winona include organizing workers in what is believed to be Winona's first labor dispute, and peddling produce on a cart pulled by a runaway horse. "All the ladies would rush out and they all wanted to buy his strawberries," Nankivil said of Kent's produce cart. The lustful, socialist, vegetarian Kent was a square peg, but he still managed to be well-liked.

Kent would go on to win world fame for his paintings and illustrations, including those for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, but one of his first art shows was at the Winona Public Library. Unfortunately for Kent, no one who attended that show bought any of his work.

A German-American house painter, Alex Geckler, who will be played by David Coral of the Great River Shakespeare Company, was Kent's best friend in Winona, and it is their friendship that is the frame for this play about Kent's time in Winona. The play opens in the 1950s, with the Geckler family reading a letter from Kent and reminiscing on their time with him in Winona.

Kent met Geckler on the Briarcombe construction site. Kent had an amazing ability to charm both social elites and working-class people like Geckler, said Ken McCullough, who also has a role in the play. What's more, Kent was a "deutschophile," said Hallek, and knew German from a young age. So Kent and Geckler hit it off right away. Kent has a few lines in German in the play, and Hallek, who does not know German, is still working on those.

In an odd arrangement, Kent decided to work a side job as a carpentry foreman for the mansion in addition to overseeing construction for the architectural firm. That made Kent both a peer and employee of the project's contractor. According to Nankivil, Kent's concern for the welfare of the workers led him to organize them and demand higher wages, even threatening a strike. Because of Kent's unusual dual role, "he really couldn't be touched in the same way the other men could," Hallek said.

The story of Kent's relationship with his wife, Kathleen, is another central theme in the play. "For me, the most important part of that play is how does that relationship between Kent and Kathleen come apart?" said Hallek.

Lynn Nankivil described Kent and Kathleen's romance novel-ready first encounter: "He rides up on a horse, in a blizzard; the horse and he are almost frozen to death. He stays at her parents' house, he's sick in bed, and she is nursing him and giving him chicken soup. And this big, intense romance comes on—this guy to her is like, 'Oh, my god.' He takes her to socialist rallies, he's this heroic guy, and everything she wanted in her life—except she wasn't all he wanted."

Kent's chronic infidelity and his incapacity for domesticity doom the relationship, Halleck said. "It's about a man who wanted it all. He wanted adventure and he wanted excitement. He wanted a wife and children, and that couldn't coexist with adventure and excitement."

Hallek can relate to some of that. "What drew me to this is that sense of recklessness and that's what I feel so akin to," Hallek said of playing Kent. "There's always that pull of how do you be domestic and still feral at the same time?"

Hallek shares a certain amount of Kent's charisma, as well, said Lynn Nankivil. "I thought about you in this part from the time I started writing it," she told Halleck in an interview with the Winona Post, "because the person has to be incredibly energetic, to have a real energy field; it can't be just somebody saying the lines."

But the role did not come without sacrifice. Hallek cut off his ponytail and got contacts to wear instead of glasses for the role. Kent was nearly bald, Lynn Nankivil explained, "so this was one of the conditions for allowing Hallek to play him."

Lynn Nankivil has written a number of other plays based on Winona history, and has had a play staged at the St. Paul History Theater.

Theatre du Mississippi will present the play at the Historic Masonic Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, February 8 and 9 and again at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 10. More information about the play and the Rockwell Kent Centennial Celebration can be found at http://rockwellkentwinona.org/events/play.html. Tickets are $15 for adults and $7 for students and are available at brownpapertickets.com. 


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