An almost palpable air of melancholy pervades this adaptation of the Gertrude Stein story “Melanctha,” about love found and then lost. Adaptor and director Frank Galati has a particular penchant for theater with literary roots, including such previous efforts as the Tony Award-winning “The Grapes of Wrath.” His skills in this genre shine through brightly in “Gertrude Stein: Each One As She May,” especially in the deft way Galati makes a virtue out of the complex sentence structure that is Stein’s trademark.
Because Stein’s somewhat repetitive prose style is unique, it takes a few minutes for the ear to grow acclimated to the language. But once that hurdle is cleared, this play turns into a gentle and moving meditation on love.
Galati employs two narrators to help tell the tale of Dr. Jefferson Campbell (Johnny Lee Davenport) and Melanctha Herbert (Jacqueline Williams). They meet and a courtship begins, but when Dr. Campbell learns some of the details of Melanctha’s checkered past, he is hard-pressed to muster any further romantic feelings. The two struggle to re-establish some foundation of trust and respect but, finally, to no avail.
Galati has staged the piece with an appealing simplicity around an unadorned staircase that dominates the center of the Goodman’s compact Studio Theater. Two onstage musicians — Miriam Sturm and Reginald Robinson — provide a delightful ragtime underscoring at key moments throughout the evening.
The cast, for the most part, have beautifully mastered the intricacies of Stein’s prose. Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Rick Worthy make a dignified team of narrators, while Williams turns in a moving performance as Melanctha. Only Davenport seems to be struggling a bit with Stein’s word patterns in his portrayal of Dr. Campbell.
In addition to Mary Griswold’s spare set, Birgit Rattenborg Wise has supplied some lovely period costumes with a distinctly Southern flavor. Robert Christen’s lighting suffuses the stage with a warm glow.