Appropriate behavior

Fair Use

Carolyn Howarth, David Silberman compare notes in <i>Fair Use</i>.

Carolyn Howarth, David Silberman compare notes in Fair Use.

Rated 3.0

A great deal is going on in this ambitious new play by Nevada County writer and actress Sands Hall. On one level, the play explores the considerable borrowings by novelist Wallace Stegner—an icon of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s—in his Pulitzer-winning novel Angle of Repose (portions of which are set in Nevada County).

Many reviewers complimented the authenticity of the voice of the novel’s leading female character. Stegner borrowed long passages—sometimes word for word—from letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a writer and illustrator who eventually settled in Grass Valley. Stegner also fictionalized any number of scenes drawn from Foote’s autobiography, but didn’t fully disclose the borrowing of Foote’s writing.

In the process of teasing out this story, the play becomes a celebration of Foote’s own life and work—Hall’s script showcases selections from her letters and her illustrations.

In addition, Hall muses on the creative process in which writers draw on the lives and experience of others. While repeatedly taking Stegner to task for not acknowledging the extent of his debt, Hall is fully aware that she is using Stegner’s life as grist for her own script—a point driven home by the inclusion of a character ("WS") obviously modeled on Stegner and another character modeled on the playwright herself—the two often debate what “fair use” of someone else’s words entails.

The play also contains an actress playing Mary Hallock Foote as a character speaking from the past but commenting on the present, a subsidiary set of characters who act out scenes from Foote’s life, as she and her husband live in mining camps, the wilds of Idaho and other Western locales, and a father-daughter subplot (the dad is well played by David Silberman) that also involves considerable debate over Stegner’s ethics and his importance as an American literary figure.

Multiple levels of reality and fantasy and overlapping characters and plot lines make this a play that asks for an attentive audience. There is a considerable payoff as the story develops—portions of the play’s second half are breathtakingly beautiful—but some casual viewers may get confused, and others may be put off by the play’s length.

But for those who stay with it—this big, ambitious play is a feast, with a broad view and savvy, intelligent perspective on life and history, literature and art, marriage and more.