Sometimes a family has a peculiar way of expressing themselves, that’s more than regional, it’s almost hereditary. In the case of Moby Pomerance’s “The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder,” witty words and assaulting civilians with their meanings marks one particular family, imprisoning them against society and the possibility of congenial relationships. The world premiere production of Pomerance’s play at Boston Court in Pasadena is deliciously funny, with a strong female protagonist and some aching social questions.
What kind of person decides to spend decades of life shut in a garden shed sorting through words and sentences using that word? What kind of man decides to employ his children in such an endeavor, instead of letting them experience the real world?
Pomerance’s story is about just how the Oxford English Dictionary, OED, was compiled. Someone had to do it in a time before computers. This isn’t about the infamous mad man who helped the so-called professor, but the professor, James Murray (John Getz), and, more importantly, his daughter Jane (Melanie Lora) and his prodigal son Paul (Ryan Welsh).
The conditions were unbearable, not only because the task was daunting, but the atmosphere suffocating. In the beginning a younger clerk, Mr. Williams (Henry Todd Ostendorf) resigns but is unable to face Jane and James and beats a hasty retreat, leaving only a note. They need another clerk and home comes Paul, having traveled the world in his map-making work. Now Jane wants a chance to escape, but to what and where?
Where can a witty, intellectual woman with a fierce pride and strong character go in the mid-1880s?
Director John Langs handles the intellectual assault and battery with spot-on timing and yet allows us to glimpse briefly at the emotional lives kept under wraps, compartmentalized like all those little pieces of papers in their many slots.
Pomerance was inspired to write this piece after several acquaintances recommended the 1998 book “The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words” The American edition of the book was called, “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” The madman was Dr. William Chester Minor who was a former Union Army surgeon, but also found not-guilty of a murder committed in England by reason of insanity. He was one of many volunteers who helped with the OED project.
The real James Murray was a Scottish lexicographer and philologist, but never a professor. He was born in 1837 in Scotland and died in 1915. With his second wife Ada Agnes Ruthven (his first wife died), he had 11 children, not two.
When Murray began working on the OED in 1879 (when the formal agreement was set), he was supposed to take ten years and produce 4 volumes. Instead, he died in 1915 (from pleurisy) and the project was finished in 1928 with 12 volumes (414,825 words although apparently nothing considered vulgar or offensive).
This play, takes place in the mid-1880s and we can already feel the unbearable tedium and suffocating restriction of the underfunded project. Imagine how much more painful each passing year just have been.
You can see a photo of Murray in his scriptorium during that time period and Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design create and wonderful approximation.
This isn’t history, and the characters of Jane and Paul are mostly imaginary–after all, the dynamics of a household of 11 kids had to be more chaotic than the simple pull and push of two siblings, deciding whose turn it is to see the world and whose turn it is to take care of the father and his soul-breaking endeavor. Still with ensemble is without fault and the journey is delightfully fulfilling–emotionally and intellectually.
“The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder” continues until 5 September 2010 (Sunday) at Boston Court. For more information visit their Web site. Thursdays-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.