It was brave of Rebecca Gilman to return to the original source material for this stunning stage treatment.

It was brave of Rebecca Gilman to return to the original source material for this stunning stage treatment (first mounted in 2005 by the Acting Company, in association with Atlanta’s Alliance Theater) of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” In going directly to the 1940 novel by Carson McCullers, sensitive scribe and simpatico helmer Doug Hughes give up much of the Southern charm that warmed up the 1968 film version starring Alan Arkin in order to restore the existential bleakness of the author’s vision of loneliness. Any stray strands of sentimentality are purged by clean-as-a-bone performance style and austere stagecraft.

HarryBob Braswell

WillieJimonn Cole

Charles Parker, et alMichael Cullen

Dr. CopelandJames McDaniel

Mick KellyCristin Milioti

BiffRandall Newsome

PortiaRoslyn Ruff

Antonapoulos, et alI.N. Sierros

John SingerHenry Stram

JakeAndrew Weems

The lights stay down on the Georgia town where the play’s action is set, reflecting lighting designer Michael Chybowski’s visual judgement on the mood of small Southern towns during the Depression years of 1938 and 1939. In David Van Tieghem’s calculated design, ambient sounds of life are also muted in the detached homes, shops and cafes that silently glide in and out of view on Neil Patel’s appropriately cheerless set.

The overall mood of isolation is altogether apt for Gilman’s dramatic interpretation of McCullers’ story, about the profound impact on the locals when a deaf-mute named John Singer (Henry Stram) comes to town. Stram, a Broadway vet and Acting Company stalwart, delivers an extraordinarily centered perf, both self-contained and exquisitely alert to his surroundings.

Although he rarely speaks — and then, only in soliloquy — Singer’s sweet smile and open countenance invite all manner of confidences from lonely people starved for someone to talk to.

One by one, they advance on him, airing grievances and articulating hopes he seems to accept with understanding and compassion. “You really do savvy, don’t you?” marvels Jake (Andrew Weems), who espouses radical politics when he’s drunk. “And here I was thinking I was the only one that got it!”

Dr. Copeland (a beautiful perf from James McDaniel), the selfless black physician who is killing himself with work, is certain Singer commiserates with his efforts to advance his people. Biff (the expressive Randall Newsome), the taciturn owner of the town’s only cafe, thinks Singer can see into his frozen soul.

Even the characters who do not throw themselves at Singer are affected by his presence, including Dr. Copeland’s pious daughter, Portia (her desperation under exquisite control in Roslyn Ruff’s perf).

Of all the lonely people who project their yearnings onto this silent, smiling man, the most unforgettable character is 14-year-old tomboy Mick Kelly. In another jaw-dropping perf from the remarkable Cristin Milioti (“Stunning”), this sensitive, artistic child is McCullers’ living masterpiece.

In the movie version, Singer and Mick are joined in a mutual alliance of genuine affection and true understanding. In the darker reality of the novel, which Gilman replicates here, Mick is no more sympathetic to Singer’s own desperate loneliness — which bursts his heart when his only friend dies — than any of the other self-absorbed characters.

Here, as in the novel, no one at all reaches out to Singer, who remains beyond human touch. Forever alone in his silent world.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

New York Theater Workshop; 199 seats; $65 top

Production

A New York Theater Workshop, Acting Company presentation of a play in two acts by Rebecca Gilman, based on the novel by Carson McCullers. Directed by Doug Hughes.

Creative

Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Michael Chybowski; original music and sound, David Van Tieghem; projections, Jan Hartley; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Winnie Y. Lok. Opened Dec. 3, 2009. Reviewed Dec. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
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