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A CurtainUp Review

Cavedweller

We know something that most people never learn. Life is about losing. We're never going to see the way other people do and we are never going to love carelessly
--- Delia
Deidre O'Connell, Adriane Lenox
Deidre O'Connell, Adriane Lenox (Photo: Joan Marcus )
Kate Moira Ryan's playwriting career has been blessed with grants and fellowships that began when she walked off with top honors of the Young Playwrights Festival in 1985 at age sixteen. With Cavedweller, she has taken on the ambitious task of adapting Dorothy Allison's novel of the same name for the stage.

This adaptation is quite a departure from Ryan's only other work that I've seen, Leaving Queens (review), a small musical inspired by her own family's immigrant experience. It proved to be rather too thin a brew for a full-length production. This is hardly the case with Cavedweller which brims with so many characters and issues that it's been the playwright's challenge to artfully condense the source story without losing its essence.

Ryan has dealt with this challenge with mixed success. She's translated Allison's at times over-ripe prose into a play that focuses, as it should, on the central characters -- a Janis Joplin like ex-rock singer named Delia Byrd and her three daughters. We're still given a chance to get to know Rosemary, Delia's best friend from her music life as well as some of the people who are part of her past and present life in Cayro, Georgia.

Despite the able cast and Michael Greif's well-paced direction this isn't quite the heart-tugger it should be. All those secondary characters are too sketchy to care about and, while there's a nice flavor of the narrow-minded deep South town during the 1980, the redemptive ending is smothered in somewhat hokey and predictable bathos.

Don't be misled either by Delia's being a rock singer, the director's famous linkage to Rent and the listing of original music by Stephen Trask of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The music element of this story is strictly background for the process of redemption and family bonding that serves a the arc of the action. Except for one scene during which Delia listens to herself singing (the actual singing done by co-composer Julia Greenberg) a vocal from her Mud Dog days, the music is incidental, coming in loud bursts in between the 21 scenes of the first act, and the sixteen of the second.

Though the book's large cast of characters has been somewhat condensed, the play is fully populated courtesy of three of the eight actors (Lynne McCollough, Carson Elrod and Stevie Ray Dallmore) who handily assume the roles of the various Cayro, Georgia residents. That leaves Deidre O'Connell to concentrate on the leading role of Delia Byrd, which she does with strong emotional commitment. Her once hard-drinking rocker is a mix of fragility and enough desperate but iron strong determination to make you root for a happy ending -- an ending that will not only reunite Delia with the righteous Amanda (Shannon Burkett) and somewhat wild Dede (Jenny Maguire), the two daughters she abandoned to get away from their abusive father, but also forge a bond between them and angry and confused Cissy (Merritt Wever), the daughter she had with Mud Dog''s leader, Randall Pritchard.

It is Pritchard's death in a highway accident that sets the difficult journey of self-disovery and forgiveness in motion, and the slower death of first husband Clint Wilson (one of Stevie Ray Dallimore's expertly played multiple roles) that prompts a bargain which will enable Delia to get back her girls.

The one character who's already established herself as the sort of strong and independent woman that Delia and her daughters have yet to become is Delia's friend Rosemary whom Ryan has made a more believable character on stage than in print (an improvement underscored by Adriane Lenox). Rosemary, unlike Delia, always put her name on the songs both women helped Randall to write.

While it's daughter Cissy's growing obsession with spelunking in the area's dark and dank caves that serves as the title and thematic metaphor -- emerging from a deep dark past to find one's way in the larger, brighter world-- the real "cavedweller" is Delia.

Ricardo Hernandez, whose sets have enhanced many recent productions, has divided New York Theatre workshop's deep stage with three panels suggesting the exterior of houses desperately in need of a fresh coat of paint. These panels and some roll-out props work well to navigate the players through the many scenes. Jan Hartley's projections add bits and pieces of narrative and text that read like chapter headings written by Allison -- a device that comes off as rather lazy playwriting. Dialect coach Deborah Hecht has perhaps done her job too well since I overheard a number of complaints during intermission and after the end about not being able to understand some of the dialogue, especially Ms. O'Connell's.

If Cavedweller too often feels like the moralistic sin-suffer-repent women's magazine stories I wrote many years ago to earn quick 10-cents-per-word cash, this story about a family of women learning to deal with death and forgiveness is nevertheless well suited to New York Theatre Workshop's "Cradle and All--The Changing American Family" -- a series which will continue this summer with Peter Gaitens' Flesh and Blood, another adaptation of a novel-- this one by Michael Cunningham.

In case you want to read Dorothy Allison's books, both Cavedweller and her first best seller, Bastard Out of Carolina, are available in inexpensive paperback editions:
Cavedweller
Bastard Out of Carolina

Cavedweller
Written by Kate Moira Ryan, based on novel of same nameby Dorothy Allison
Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Shannon Burkett (Amanda Windsor), Stevie Ray Dallimore (Clint Windsor, Deputy Emmet Tyler, Michael Graham, Billy Tucker), Carson Elrod (Grandaddy Byrd, Nolan Reitower) , Adriane Lenox (Rosemary), Jenny Maguire (Dede Windsor), Lynne McCollough Waitress, Louise Windsor, Marcia Pearlman, Nadine Reittower, Gilian Wynchester, Mrs. Caidenhead, Sheila, Bartender), Deirdre O'Connell (Delia Byrd) and Merritt Wever (Cissy Pritchart).
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton
Original music by Stephen Trask and Julia Greenberg
Sound Design: Jerry Yager
Projections: Jan Hartley
Diaalect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, includes one intermission.
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (Bowery/ Second Avenue) 212/ 239-6200.
Tuesday through Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm and 7:00pm.--$60Limited number of $10 tickets available beginning two hours prior to each performance, in person at the NYTW box office.
4/18/03-6/01/03; opening 5/08/03Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance

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