Special to The Courant   The Hartford Courant   Friday May 20. 2005
Paeans To Noank In Music And Words By OWEN McNALLY



Composer Kent Hewitt's passion for the seacoast charm and historic mystique of Noank is so deep-seated that it's probably encoded in his DNA.
Hewitt celebrates the all-American, small town qualities of Noank (a picturesque section of Groton) with a suite of musical portraits on his evocative, reverential album called "Little Town by the Sea-Soundscapes by Kent Hewitt." For Hewitt, who lives in Noank by the Mystic River and grew up in Groton Heights, a historical part of Groton, the CD's dozen selections represent his reflections on how the maritime village's character has been shaped by its people, history, topography and umbilical link with the sea.
The CD, which portrays Noank as a virtually mythic town that time forgot, has been released in conjunction with Groton's Tercentennial (300th) Celebration that runs through 2005. The Noank Historical Society and the Groton Tercentennial Committee sponsored the recording project that features Hewitt on piano and synthesizer in combo settings featuring his frequent collaborator, the well-known Connecticut saxophonist and flutist, Tim Moran.

A democratic melting pot of influences, Hewitt's mini-tone poems on the town's historic legacy, sites and vistas range stylistically over jazz, classical, contemporary, rock, Latin, pop, New Age, funk, hymns and ragtime. His moods are mostly exuberant and always in the American grain, whether he's painting a sonic portrait of a quaint, frozen-in-time soda shop; his beloved hamlet's venerable house of worship, or its summer festivities and social gatherings at the town dock.
His compositions are as true a slice of Americana as cherry pie, or works by Charles Ives, Scott Joplin, Norman Rockwell, Robert Frost, Thornton Wilder, or the American Impressionist painters who tramped over the idyllic Connecticut countryside in pursuit of its alluring light and atmosphere. Hewitt's homage to his hometown was inspired by two plays written by Noank poet/playwright Melanie Greenhouse. One called "Point of Land" extols the scenic district's history from colonial times. The second, "The Duchess of Noank," is a loving portrait of one of the town's most colorful characters, Mary Virginia Goodman (1897-1988), best known to locals as the Duchess of Noank.  

In "Point of Land," a prose poem play that debuted in 1997, Greenhouse presents a panoramic view of three centuries of Noank history from the time it was the hunting and fishing grounds of the Pequots to the present. Much like a good film score, Hewitt's compositions on the CD, "Point of Land Prologue" and "Point of Land Theme" echo the play's idyllic world in which there seems to be a moratorium on time. Capturing the savory flavor and variety of Noank history, Greenhouse orchestrates the voices of some 70 characters who once walked the seaside town's streets, built or sailed its wooden ships, gossiped, fornicated, worshipped, loved, lived and died. A blend of mostly historic fact and imaginatively fabricated fable and metaphoric levels of meaning, Greenhouse's "play for voices" does for Noank what the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas did for the small, mythical Welsh seacoast town of Llareggub in his 1953 masterwork, "Under Milk Wood."

Mary Virginia Goodman, the lf-proclaimed Duchess of Noank and, by far, the most flamboyant of all Greenhouse's cast of naughty or nice Noankians, makes only a cameo appearance in "Point of Land." (Point of Land is the English translation of the original Native American word that white settlers eventually came to pronounce and spell as Noank.)
But the regal, charismatic teacher, historian, local journalist, orator, world traveler, eccentric and avid collector of much older men as husbands, has center stage in "The Duchess of Noank," a modern dream play that premiered in 2000. Again, Hewitt complements Greenhouse's written word with his classy sounding theme, "Waltz of the Duchess," one of his CD's brightest, catchiest creations.

How this crusty, self-confident Nutmeg doyenne becomes the Duchess of Noank while travelling in Scotland, where she sprains her ankle and strains the truth, is an amusing anecdote worthy of Mark Twain in his "The Innocents Abroad." Three actors, who simultaneously interact with one another in Greenhouse's play, represent the Duchess at three stages in her life: youth, middle age and old age. Individually, they play the Duchess as a precocious girl in her early to mid-teens; as a cocky, middle-aged, revered yet feared teacher and as a popular, breezy local newspaper columnist; and, finally, as an elderly but still razor-witted, proud woman waiting not for Godot, but for death.
Seasoned with symbolism, "The Duchess of Noank" opens with a thudding fall from grace and ends with death as a kind of mystical ascension on a stairway to the unknown. Between fall and ascension, scenes freely shift back-and-forth across time periods, moving in and out of dreamtime. Sometimes they even split, like cinematic images, so action occurs concurrently or even overlaps.

With her Down East accent, the Duchess was as proud of being a descendant of the legendary Mohegan chief, Uncas, as she was of her Yankee ancestry. Her proudest claim, which she announced to everybody, was that she could count from one to 12 in what she called "the Mohegan tongue." So who was this complex, contradictory character who mocked suffragists as a young girl, but as an adult, liberated woman marched boldly to the very loud beat of her own drum? Think of some brilliant hybrid of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Dorothy Parker, Hedda Hopper, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Queen Victoria, Katharine Hepburn and the best and the brightest, most intimidating female teacher you ever had in elementary school, and you'll get a glimmer of what this regal, New England original must have been like. The dark secret-or at least semi-dark secret at the core of the enigmatic Duchess's erotic life-- is that she never got over her hot, girlhood crush on her grandfather. Even long after the gentlemanly gaffer's death, he remained the Platonic standard for the Duchess's selection of her mostly infirm, ancient but well-to-do husbands. Greenhouse lets this "secret" fixation unfurl gently in the play, never exploiting it as a geriatric variation of the Oedipus complex.
An only child of Czech refugees who emigrated to Virginia in the late 1940s, Greenhouse, 55, has been a devout Noankian since moving to town from Mystic in 1984 with her husband Sandy, a physician who practices in Gales Ferry. It was love at first sight for the transplant whose favorite creative pastimes today are gardening or sitting on her patio in the sunshine writing her first drafts by hand.

Hewitt, the native Groton son, first crossed paths with Greenhouse in 1994 while playing a gig at the Arts Café-Mystic's literary and music series. The ongoing, innovative series is noted for presenting such noted poets as Pulitzer Prize winner, Stephen Dunn, and the dissident Chinese poet, Xue Di. Greenhouse, a former soccer mom who wrote her poems and plays at home while her three sons were at school, coordinated the innovative series from 1994 to 2004 at the Mystic Arts Center. Impressed by the spirit that she heard in Hewitt's playing, Greenhouse asked the pianist in 1996 to collaborate with her by composing music for her writings on Noank.

A musical maven who's at home in any genre from jazz to classical, Hewitt had already composed music for poetry written by Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's poet laureate. A reader with varied intellectual and philosophical interests far afield from music, Hewitt, who's now 61, jumped at the chance to collaborate with a playwright. Especially because this would give him the opportunity to compose music inspired by the cherished coastal world where he grew up and has deep ancestral roots, including solid bourgeois merchants as forebears. And, after all, it was the history-drenched, lyrical seacoast atmosphere that helped form his emerging worldview in many ways.

Especially his lifelong love for the environment and fascination with rivers, most particularly his personal holy trinity of the Mystic, the Thames and the Connecticut. Since growing up in a historic cupola-capped, sea captain's house that overlooks the Thames, Hewitt has lived much of his life not far from these three rivers. Except, of course, when he's on the road plying his craft as a peripatetic pianist throughout the United States and even Europe. Not surprisingly, one of the most fluent programmatic pieces on his CD is "Flow Like the River," his tribute to the Mystic, which he praises in the liner notes as "a source of spiritual renewal in a tumultuous world."

By focussing on the particulars of Noank's historical legacy, both Hewitt and Greenhouse strive to get across a uiversal message about the importance of preserving the environment and a shared, communal sense of historical consciousness. Most especially, they fear commercial incursions on the precious but vulnerable ambiance of small coastal burghs like Noank. The threat comes from what they call "the boutiquing" of old, traditional downtown areas, and "the McMansionizing," or building of gargantuan trophy homes with a disregard for their impact on historic sites or on the timeless village aura portrayed by the pair in word and music. By using their art to exalt Noank's priceless historic legacy and its virtues as a classic New England seacoast haven, Hewitt and Greenhouse hope to help preserve all the Noanks of America, maybe even for another 300 years.

Hewitt's CD is available for $15, plus $3 for shipping at kenthewitt@hotmail.com, 860-440-3099. The pianist performs with his Noank Jazz Trio June 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Main & Hopewell, 2 Hopewell Road, South Glastonbury. No cover. Call: (860) 633-8698.
"The Duchess of Noank" will be presented June 23 through June 26 by the Groton Regional Theatre at the Groton Senior Center, 102 Newtown Road (Rte. 117), Groton. The play will be preceded by dinner at 6:30 p.m. June 23-June 25 and at noon June 26. Tickets: $20 includes dinner and play. Information: (860) 441-6785.