Did Jack Kerouac’s dialogue ever sound like Talmudic debates? Raviv Ullman, the Israeli-American star of “Phil of the Future” thinks so. In Kerouac’s unfinished novella “A Haunted Life,” in which Ullman stars, two friends go back and forth about everything, from immigration to whether the United States should get involved in World War II. These conflicting positions vividly play out at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in artistic director Sean Daniels’ strikingly poetic adaptation of the unfinished novella.
Who exactly is this haunted one? Ullman has no doubt that he is Peter, the role he plays. “I honestly think that Peter is Kerouac himself at an early age. We meet Peter at 19 before the war hits,” said Ullman, who speaks fluent Hebrew, keeps a kosher kitchen, and has starred in a variety of TV shows and plays. “We’re seeing the seeds of what later became one of America’s greatest writers,” said Ullman, who finds Kerouac’s writing “Shakespearean in nature.” He praised Daniel’s adaptation. “It’s not modern-day speech. It’s theatrical in nature. Sean has done a very good job of writing the poetry and what happens,” he said.
Veteran Portsmouth Jewish actor Joel Colodner seconded that praise. “The language is very beautiful. Some of the passages come directly from [Kerouac’s] work,” he said. Colodner enjoyed playing the bigoted Joe. “My character goes on several rants, including the anti-Semitic charge that Jews run everything, but there are good aspects to the role,” said Colodner. “He’s hardworking and tries to be a good father. By the end of the play my character does begin to realize there are other people [Jews, blacks, Greeks, Italians, others.] There is some growth.”
“The Haunted Life” chronicles the odyssey of Jack Kerouac through the early personal and family experiences of protagonist Peter Martin. Kerouac witnessed anti-Semitism throughout his Lowell childhood, and even saw his father knock a rabbi into a gutter. In the play, Peter verbally challenges his father’s prejudice and anti-Semitism. The novelist joined the Merchant Marine in 1942 and the Navy in 1943; Peter made the same back-to-back commitments. Kerouac was very close to his mother; the protagonist looked to his mother Vivienne Martin for warmth and parental caring. The author succumbed to alcoholism and died at the age of 47 in 1969.
A strong ensemble makes Peter’s experiences come compellingly alive. Raviv Ullman smartly contrasts Peter’s insecurity with his embrace of fresh situations. His extended disagreements with his bigoted father Joe catch fire with full conviction. Colodner conveys Joe’s attitude without losing sight of his earnest attention to Peter. Vichet Chum has all of Garabed’s romantic sensibility and admirable loyalty to Peter. Tina Fabrique provides the right reserve of love and comfort as mother Vivienne. Caroline Neff is a revelation as Peter’s insightful and conscience-strong girlfriend – particular in moments of uncommon candor about his lifestyle.
In the Merrimack Repertory playbill, Daniels speaks of his collaboration with co-director Pena as “our love letter to Lowell and New England. “The Haunted Life” sends an ode of affection to both Kerouac and the heart of his city.
“A Haunted Life” will play Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell through April 14. Call 978-654-4678 or visit mrt.org.