For a delicate story about heartbreaking loneliness and the world of silence in a small Southern town in the late 1930s, Rebecca Gilman's stage adaptation of Carson McCullers' first novel, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," is awfully loud, broad and overbearing, failing to find a solid theatrical voice.
For a delicate story about heartbreaking loneliness and the world of silence in a small Southern town in the late 1930s, Rebecca Gilman’s stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’ first novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” is awfully loud, broad and overbearing, failing to find a solid theatrical voice. What’s more, the usually spot-on director Doug Hughes (“Doubt”) misses with his casting and calibrations in this co-production, commissioned by the Acting Company, which makes its world preem in Atlanta, in the state where the story is set.
Unlike the 1968 film — which centered primarily on the relationship between Mr. Singer, a deaf mute pining for his institutionalized companion, and tomboy Mick Kelly (memorably played by Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke, respectively) — Gilman returns to the novel’s chamber quartet of outcasts desperate to be heard.
There’s Mick (Julie Jesneck), a poor young girl who dreams of being a symphonic composer; Jake (Andrew Weems), a drunk in search of his radical self; Biff (Randall Newsome), a selfless cafe owner with a secret longing of his own; and Dr. Copeland (Ron Cephas Jones), a black medic bitter at his own community’s refusal to demand its rights. All four find in the mute (Henry Stram) someone attuned to their most private yearnings, dreams and desires. But they also fail to see that same need in him.
But what works on the page comes across onstage as unwieldy, unfocused and ultimately unmoving. Dry-eyed conclusion may make those longing for a hanky-wringer version turn to Netflix.
Though Gilman’s adaptation is expansive in embracing the many subplots, the script and production actually reduces the world of the novel by shrinking not just the scope of the town but Mick’s family and its boarding house population as well. Aud sees principal characters as isolated figures, but in a void they don’t have much impact. It also misses the point that one can be dying of loneliness in the most crowded of places.
Jan Hartley’s smartly done projections help give period atmosphere. It’s unclear whether Neil Patel’s handsome abstract setting is meant to render things lonelier onstage or simply make the production easier to tour.
Most of the actors project their characters to the Alliance’s far balcony, which hardly suits the work’s intimacy. At least Singer doesn’t speak (for most of the play) so Stram is a model of effective downplaying by comparison, nicely capturing the character’s gentleness, formality and ultimately tragic anguish.
Weems plays Jake with a single level of obnoxious gruffness while Jesneck as 13-year-old Mick gives a game perf but never breaks through the obvious disparity of age. Ditto Adam Green as the teenage pal who takes her into womanhood. As Copeland, Jones projects righteous pride but little else. Roslyn Ruff as doc’s daughter gives the ensemble’s most layered perf.
Gilman embraces many scenes from the 1940 novel that were cut for the film, but these episodes tend to be repetitive, failing to add to any cumulative effect. Playwright hasn’t found enough theatrical moments to call her own: a scene in which the four characters surround Mr. Singer and simultaneously pour out their heart makes an early dramatic statement, but few others follow.
The grace of McCullers’ haunting prose comes in the smallest of details, and onstage those are mostly missed. An exception: A widower going through his wife’s personal effects — nylons, hairbrush and perfume — says more in silence than many of the political rants Gilman has resurrected from the book. However, giving speech to Singer at the beginning and end of the play — even if one was based on a letter lifted from the middle of the novel — prevents the aud from projecting itself into the heart and mind of the silent protagonist.