Joyce Carol Oates has fashioned her 2003 novel “The Tattooed Girl” into an intriguing but verbose play about a relationship between an uneducated, anti-Semitic woman and her employer, a literary scholar and child of Holocaust survivors. The play is enjoying a first-rate preem at Theater J, the professional troupe operated by the D.C. Jewish Community Center.
As with some other Oates works, the play is not technically a book adaptation but a project written simultaneously for both page and stage. Although they share plot and principal characters, the play departs from the book in several respects, notably its more subdued ending.
The undisputed highlight is the performance of Michelle Shupe as a self-destructive woman afflicted by prejudices, drug addiction and a penchant for masochistic entanglements. Shupe is truly pathetic as Alma, a homeless and marginally literate woman disfigured by ugly tattoos inflicted during a drug-induced blackout.
Surprisingly, Alma wins a job as a literary assistant to a wealthy author (Michael Russotto) also loaded with personal baggage. His health is being destroyed by a nerve disorder; he is absorbed personally and professionally with his Jewish roots; and his literary star has faded.
As their relationship evolves, Alma tries to jettison her demons, most notably her deep-seated hatred for Jews and her abusive boyfriend (played with sinister zeal by Christopher Browne).
Among her revelations is the symbolism of tattoos to Jews, some of whom wear the permanent reminders of concentration camps. The awakening of the disheveled woman is moving, and written by Oates with great sensitivity. But its effect is somewhat muted by the disjointed drama that surrounds it.
Russotto stands his ground as the faltering author who achieves a curious satisfaction from the quirky relationship, but the character lacks definition and doesn’t draw the empathy the author was surely seeking.
The other principal character is the writer’s overprotective sister (Cam Magee), who figures less prominently in the stage version. Her assertive character is more of a diversion than an addition to the thin plot.
John Vreeke’s solid direction emphasizes strong personalities and emotional outbursts, while Colin Bills’ subdued lighting showcases both the sinister doings and the earnest proceedings that occur on Dan Conway’s multilevel library set.