“The Promise of the Park”
Friday, February 5th, 2009
REVIEW by Professor of American History Sean Dineen, MA, Kean University, NJ
The history of disability inclusion began earlier than you think, although the issue has always been a struggle. We in the Disability Community have spent our lives watching the struggle for inclusion unfold, bit by bit, inch by inch, and sometimes, by the grace of God, triumph. It is very easy to fall into the misunderstanding that no one was really thinking about “our issues” prior to 1973. It was my pleasure to learn that this is not true at all.
I recently observed Theatre in Motion’s musical play “The Promise of the Park,” a fetching, time traveling tale about the first American park open to everyone, New York City’s Central Park, and its maverick first Architect in Chief, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. “The Promise of the Park” is well-researched and handsomely written by Ms. Leslie Fanelli (Artistic Director and Founder of Theatre in Motion). The performance I saw was engagingly fresh and exciting, juxtaposed to the fact that Central Park’s history germinated in the nineteenth century.
It took sixteen years to build and officially open the park in 1873. This was a full century before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which laid the foundation for equality in education and physical accessibility in government buildings in the twentieth century and beyond. In the nineteenth century, Mr. Olmsted and his co-creator, Calvert Vaux, designed Central Park as largely physically accessible via the use of ingenious landscape architecture—specifically, the park’s sunken transverse roads. These sunken roads separated “the frantic zeal of the cross-town traffic” from “the rustic beauty” and patrons traveling about the park. In fact, in the original 1857 design called “The Greensward Plan,” Olmsted and Vaux had pointed out that the transverse roads would allow for the inclusion and safety of people with disabilities—and ladies (in big, hoop skirts)! Olmsted and his two sons would go on to design thousands of American landscapes, and in 1893, Olmsted, Sr., designed the grounds for the spectacular Chicago World’s Fair. He also designed breathtakingly beautiful grounds for a number of hospitals. In this arena, he was brilliantly ahead of his time because he espoused bright, air-filled treatment rooms, in place of the stark “cells” of the era. Plus, of course, he believed his lovely grounds to be naturally therapeutic. It is ironic that he spent his last few years after acquiring dementia in the McLean Psychiatric Hospital, where he had previously designed the becalming scenery.
Throughout his career, the genius landscape architect Olmsted saw the need to use public spaces to bring people together. In a time when any concern for the non elite was dismissed as radical, or dispensed with the disdain of paternalistic disengagement, a public park for all humankind to share—black and white, rich and poor—was unheard of. Even before he sustained his decided, permanent limp in a frightening carriage accident, he understood the need to integrate those with disabilities into his parks, and by extension, the wider world. In fact, as Ms. Fanelli’s play reveals, he designed the first wheelchair accessible trail to the top of Mount Royale in Canada in the 1870’s.
The play is executed in a whimsical, yet compelling manner, like all of Ms. Fanelli’s vibrant works. In “The Promise of the Park,” she is director, actress, and singer—in addition to being the playwright. Her teenage persona (along with her friend and conscience, “Amy”) is played with zest and humor. Ms. Amelia Fowler as “Amy” is endearing, piquant, and funny in her role. In one scene, they are having a picnic in the park when, to their disbelief, they encounter Olmsted himself, who has traveled through time to see his beloved park in the twenty-first century. Initially, they cannot believe that Olmsted, whom they have never heard of, is anything more than an actor or confused soul, but he is able to convince them that he is, in fact, Central Park’s first Architect in Chief. That accomplished, the three share an exciting journey back into the park’s creation, after which, they time travel forward into the present to better understand and heed the critical environmental concerns facing the world now.
I would be remiss not to mention Bill Houpt at the piano—a fine, keyboard “one man orchestra.” He not only plays the pleasing accompaniment, but plays the sound effects, as well.
The lion Olmsted, brought to life by Mr. William Dembaugh, experiences great wonder at this new world. He believes a jet plane to be a new bird, and the tall buildings on the perimeter of the park to be incredible structures, especially because in 1873, there were virtually no buildings surrounding the park—and certainly none as tall as today’s skyscrapers! He proceeds to teach and mentor the two young people on how to protect this park treasure that he has given to everyone. “The First American People’s Park.”
As the mighty protagonist Olmsted, William Dembaugh is humbly resplendent. His exquisite, tenor voice captures the beauty of Olmsted’s life and work. The entrancing music, created by an artistic team headed by Ms. Susan Mondzak, is delightful and, when needed, dramatically engaging. “The Things I See” and “Back in 1873” are bracing, musical stand-outs. With regard to the musical drama, Mr. Dembaugh is careful to portray Olmsted not as an archaism, but rather, a forward-thinking, inclusive artist.
Yes, indeed, the history of disability inclusion began earlier than you think.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.—a man of his time, a patriarch before we knew what that really meant.
Theatre in Motion is an award-winning, professional, non-profit theatre company that features intergenerational creative and performing artists with and without disabilities—serving intergenerational audiences with and without disabilities via original dramatic and musical productions.
Theatre in Motion’s New Music CD, “The Promise of Central Park,” is available at CDBaby: