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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
By Elyse Sommer
Mick still has big dreams of leaving the Kelly boarding house in a small Georgia town and becoming great by the time she's seventeen. She elaborates on one such dream — to become an inventor — with an amazingly timely idea for a radio "the size of green peas. People could stick 'em in their ears and walk around listenin' to music any time they wanted.". Mostly, however, she wants to become a musician and her prescient idea for that tiny radio is no doubt prompted by her habit of lurking outside the homes of people who tune in to her favorite programs.
Like all the characters in this melancholy depression era story, Mick's dreams and desires are crushed. Not so her creator. Carson McCullers, who also grew up in a small Georgia town did make it big as a writer, starting with this her first novel, which was published when she was just twenty-three.
It's been a long time since I read . . .Hunter. Unlike William Faulkner, another Southern gothic writer whose work I read about the same time, McCuller's characters and setting always struck me as more universal and accessible and therefore etched themselves more vividly in my memory. Often, while wandering the streets of New York or even at a party, I've been reminded of the rush of isolation evoked by this unforgettably disturbing book. I therefore decided to see Rebecca Gilman's stage adaptation without first re-reading the book or watching the movie version and instead rely on memories from the reading experience to help me judge whether the play lived up to the reading experience and whether it held up on its own for someone seeing it without prior acquaintance with the book .
Gilman, who's written a number of strong dramas (Spinning Into Butter, The Glory of Living, Boy Gets Girl, Blue Surge) and herself grew up in the South, obviously had her work cut out for her in trying to make McCuller's novel stageworthy. After all, the book is fairly plotless, but essentially a portrait of a group of doomed to disappointment characters in a small town in the deep and deeply bigoted South at a time when the Great Depression still in full force and the clouds of World War II increasingly visible.
The constraints of adapting a book for the stage made streamlining the text and paring down the cast of characters a necessity. The good news is that Ms. Gilman has done both quite ably, and without sacrificing the key characters. The Kelly household is reduced to Mick, her father and a single boarder. The tubercular Dr. Copeland, the town's only black doctor is included, as are two but not all of the children (Portia and Willie) who have ignored his pleas to become educated, upwardly mobile instead of downtrodden Negroes. Biff Brannon, the proprietor of the town's diner and one of the few thoughtful and observant characters is on hand but his wife Alice is mever seem/
The pivot for all the characters is John Singer, the deaf mute who ironically becomes the good listener, a magnet for the confidences of the others' dreams and desires even though no one bothers to learn about his own tragically ended relationship with Antonapoulos, another deaf-mute with whom he lived before moving to the Kelly boarding house. Unfortunately, Gilman's script also doesn't give Singer's relationship with Antonapoulos the attention it warrants and thus fails to convey the darkness and depth of his isolation and final act of desperation. That said, while I didn't see Alan Arkin's much praised portrayal of John Singer in the movie version, I can't think of a more ideal actor to play Singer in this stage version than the unassuming Henry Stram. He's the sort of actor's actor able to slip into all manner of complex roles (to name just a few: Pinter's The Birthday Party, Michael John LaChiusa's unusual musical See What I Wanna to See, Arthur Miller's The Crucible). And he certainly doesn't disappoint here.
Director Doug Hughes has drawn strong, sensitive performances out of everyone here. Christin Milioti, not only imbues Mick with convincing rebellious spirit and optimistic bravado (at least for most of the play) but looks remarkably like Carson McCullers. Andrew Weems does well by Jake, the hard-drinking political organizer and James McDaniel and Roslyn Ruff are outstanding as Dr. Copeland and the pious daughter who loves him despite their opposite beliefs.
But even with one of our best directors at the helm, Ms. Gilman's script being more than reasonably true to the book, and the outstanding work of the actors, ultimately the ideal way to experience these angry and sad, hopeful and hopeless people and the evocative landscape of the late 30's deep South is to read the book. Set designer Neil Patel has taken advantage of the New York Theater Workshop's wide stage to set up the town's various locations clear across the stage, with some of the individual setting sliding forward and backward as called for. This works quite well, as do Jan Hartley's projections of Mick's and the mad preacher's and Jake's verbal graffiti. Catherine Zuber's costume, Michael Chybowsky's lighting and David Van Tieghem's original music and sound design all support Mr. Hughe's stark but smooth staging. However, it's all a bit distancing. That, plus the necessary streamlining of text and characters, makes it difficult to get quite as viscerally involved as I remember being when I read the book.
Despite the fact that this adaptation is overshadowed by its source, the combination of respectful adaptation, excellent acting and skillfull direction and stagecraft add up to a mostly absorbing evening — especially if you're familiar with the book so that your memory will fill in the scenes and poetry that' have gone missing in the page to stage transition. While not being familiar with the book (or the movie) won't prevent you from understanding what's happening on stage, it will probably make you want to read the book and the good news in that case is that, masterpiece that it is, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is still in print and available, including second hand editions at literally next to nothing.
Although McCullers, unlike Mick did leave the South and became famous, the landscape of her youth and the lonely eccentrics she wrote about so movingly, went with her. And so, we owe a debt of gratitude to Rebecca Gilman for giving us a chance to become acquainted or re-acquainted with the characters who launched her all too brief but fruitful career.