From Heaven to the Springs

'Nightswim' moves Barton Springs from history to literature

Naked City paid a visit to Barton Springs on Congress Saturday night – or at least a fictional version of that oasis, imagined in playwright Steve Moore's Nightswim, a world premiere production by the State Theater Company. The 90-minute one-act re-creates the springs via the friendship of the original Austin scholarly triumvirate – historian Walter Prescott Webb, folklorist J. Frank Dobie, and naturalist Roy Bedichek, who spent many a long afternoon musing together on the banks of the Springs. The play opens on the day of Bedichek's death – May 21, 1959 – although the beloved "Bedi" soon makes his bittersweet appearance as a perplexed and still curious shade en route to the afterlife. Overcoming a premise that threatens briefly to become "three men and a bathtub," Moore manages both to recount the lives of those who arguably founded the intellectual culture of Austin and Texas, and to magically create a dream-filled universe whose blessed portal is also Austin's spiritual heart.

The play is undeniably a romantic version of Austin history, but the playwright leavens the sentiment with a mix of humor and an edge of competition between the men over their various contributions to public letters. And the several dream sequences are striking in the way they erupt out of the ordinary lives of Dobie and Webb and then move into the netherworld that now belongs to Bedichek, thereby revealing more about all three men than the published evidence makes readily available. In that regard, the performances are also telling: David Stahl's Bedichek is an unpretentious observer of nature, suddenly thrust into unexpected wisdom; Doug Taylor as Dobie is an avuncular, sharp-tongued good ol' boy who also provides a narrative frame for the whole drama; and Robert Faires (also Chronicle Arts editor) as Webb is the soft-spoken academic – a nonswimmer at the Springs – whose uneasy spirit is only revealed in nightmare or crisis.

"The whole world's just stories and places," declares Dobie, and Moore has succeeded admirably in using that notion to weave together a seminal Austin story, a light-handed meditation on the nature of time and history, and a thoughtful homage to the sacred, sylvan grotto that as natural inheritance and treasured public trust embodies the best of who we are. With Nightswim, Barton Springs has passed through history and found another home, in our national literature.

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Barton Springs, Steve Moore, Walter Webb, J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, State Theater Company, David Stahl, Doug Taylor, Robert Faires

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