America, Reclaimed

Garrison Keillor, with Richard Dworsky and Robin and Linda Williams

At the Arlington Theatre, Tuesday, January 23.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer

There’s a certain edge to Garrison Keillor — within the warm, fatherly rumble of his voice and vision, and a little twinge of tragedy — that makes him one of the most compelling storytellers there is. Keillor brought his incomparable blend of tenderness and sarcasm, reverence and farce to a packed Arlington last week, weaving together tall tales from legendary Lake Wobegon with sweet gospel songs that drew out the core of his message.

As any listener of Keillor’s public radio programs knows, he takes great delight in painting vivid, verbal caricatures of his native Minnesota — the small-town gossip and Lutheran prudishness as well as the powerful pull of family ties and the sense of pride and belonging. The difference between listening to Keillor on the radio and sharing a theater with him, though, was marked. Throughout the course of two hours, he wrapped his listeners into the story, so that when he spoke of “my people,” he was speaking of us.

Even those familiar with the fictional, Midwestern town where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average, may not have heard Keillor sing, but sing he does, in a voice that’s remarkably resonant and soulful. From the show’s opening number, “Oh Lord, Won’t You Come Down Here?,” to its “standing intermission” with audience sing-along, to its closing goodnight gospel prayer, Keillor and his musicians steeped us in harmonies and homilies deep and compassionate. Just hours after the State of the Union address aired on television, Keillor brought 2,000 listeners to their feet to sing four complete verses of America the Beautiful, and made brotherhood ring from the Arlington’s walls.

What’s wonderful is that while he’s full of a reverent love for humanity, Keillor is also absolutely irreverent and unsentimental. From his red sneakers that peeked out beneath his suit to his wry commentary on everything from a ladies’ quilting club (“keeping their hands occupied lest they turn to organized crime,”) to Bolinas, California (where a Lake Wobegon native renames herself Starflower Moonbright and pursues a career in veterinary aromatherapy), Keillor followed a riotous, winding path through a world at once imaginary and immediately recognizable. Ultimately, Keillor becomes the fatherly guide around whom we gather for sustenance, just as the people of Lake Wobegon go to Pastor Inqvist for prayer. Keillor’s message, though, is both darker and deeper. Death, he told us, is always around the corner. Life is a ludicrous bungle, a comedy of errors, a fleeting gift worthy of celebration. And since we’re standing in a darkened theater together, we may as well sing — about spacious skies, and fruited plains, and gleaming alabaster cities, undimmed by human tears. Somehow, in our singing, Santa Barbara and Lake Wobegon became one and the same place, and for perhaps the first time in my life, I felt at home in America.

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