LOWELL — If you didn’t know that Lowell has embraced native son Jack Kerouac, you might have been surprised to see a guy selling Kerouac-in-his-Lowell-High-School-football-uniform bobbleheads in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre lobby Thursday night.
The play onstage was “The Haunted Life,” written and co-directed by MRT artistic director Sean Daniels and based on a recently rediscovered, unfinished Kerouac manuscript from 1944. It best captures the Beat writer’s free-flowing voice when it uses his actual words to evoke the beauty of middle-class Lowell life before World War II, with its “beery, cold, brass-gleaming saloons” and “soft squares of golden light (that) fell from parlor windows onto the green lawns.”
The Kerouac who lived and penned the Bohemian “On The Road” is here too, lamenting the brutality of war and what a friend calls “the system of concessions called society.” But as nearly every other character in the play suffers more than he does, his undergraduate world-weariness seems callow. Perhaps that’s one reason Kerouac left the manuscript of “The Haunted Life” in his friend Allen Ginsberg’s closet at Columbia University in 1945, where it was found decades later.
Anyway, Daniels and co-director christopher oscar peña have taken the autobiographical novella and made a good show out of it. Daniels’s previous play, “The White Chip,” about his struggle with alcoholism and recovery, premiered at MRT in 2016. He wrote “The Haunted Life” with the support of Kerouac’s estate. The original manuscript had surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in 2002, selling to an unnamed bidder, and in 2014, it was published with notes and letters in a volume edited by UMass Lowell associate professor Todd F. Tietchen.
The Kerouac avatar here is a serious young man named Peter Martin (Raviv Ullman), enjoying the summer of 1941 between his freshman and sophomore years at Boston College with his sort-of girlfriend named Eleanor (Caroline Neff), his good buddy Garabed (playwright and actor Vichet Chum, whose “KNYUM” played MRT recently), and his parents, Joe and Vivienne (Joel Colodner and Tina Fabrique). He and his dad share a fondness for trips to Suffolk Downs and the Union Oyster House, and for Red Sox games on the radio.
Across two acts, Peter lauds and laments this suburban life, joins the Merchant Marine (as Kerouac did), quits the service even as World War II is heating up, and lands in New York to drink with Garabed. He talks constantly of finding a way forward, a truthful life, but is blocked as a poet and is not so good as a friend or lover, either. Even those closest to him needle him for his youthful angst.
“It’s all so terribly gorgeous and wrong,” Peter says.
“That’s kind of your thing, isn’t it?” retorts a shipmate (also played by Chum). “That and losing at poker.”
The even sharper needle is Eleanor’s. “You want to be a poet? Write poetry, don’t stumble about on a morning drunk talking about poetry. That’s not being a writer, that’s being a drunken talker,” she tells him, adding an eternally valuable piece of advice for scribes everywhere: “Don’t be ‘a writer,’ be writing.” Neff is this play’s best weapon, a dose of vivacious reality every time she appears.
Also packing a punch is Boston theater stalwart Colodner as Peter’s father. His bigoted rants about being overrun by foreigners (the Greeks and Italians and Armenians!) make him a MAGA figure, though this is so on-the-nose that it becomes a (funny) distraction.
All five members of the cast are up to the tasks Daniels has set for them. As Peter, Ullman does well with an awkward role; it’s not his fault that the kid is more mopey than masterful.
This portrait of the Beat icon as a young man is nonetheless a valuable addition to our understanding of Kerouac’s history and his relationship to his hometown. Daniels, who has led MRT for four years, will leave in May to become artistic director of the Arizona Theatre Company, in the state where he grew up. “The Haunted Life,” limning another writer’s origins, is a nice parting gift for the MRT and Lowell.
THE HAUNTED LIFE
Play by Sean Daniels, based on the book by Jack Kerouac. Directed by christopher oscar peña and Daniels. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, in collaboration with Jim Sampas and the Estate of Jack Kerouac. At Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Lowell, through April 14. Tickets $24-$66, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.orgJoel Brown can be reached at email@example.com