A correction was made to this review on Feb. 19, 2004.
Michael Greif’s intelligent take on this engaging but problematic work provides a textbook study on the rewards and pitfalls of novel-to-stage adaptations. The show keeps faith with the emotional issues in Kate Moira Ryan’s eloquently blunt text (adapted from the bestselling novel by Dorothy Allison) about a gutsy mother’s determined efforts to keep her family from self-destructing. But there’s little theatrical thrust to the linear structure, which fails to find dramatic correlatives for the novel’s intimate voice. Abandoned in scenes that feel unfinished, the characters hang in narrative limbo, never completely revealing themselves and never quite connecting.
A can-do cast works overtime to fill in the blanks with performances as savvy as they are sensitive. Deirdre O’Connell (“The Mystery of Attraction”) aces the sympathy sweepstakes as Delia Byrd, the brassy lead singer of a rock band called Mud Dog that has lost its star performer (and the father of Delia’s teenaged daughter, Cissy) in a fatal motorcycle accident. Every bit of 40 and feeling it, Delia decides to give up the Janis Joplin lifestyle and return home to Cayro, Georgia, to reclaim the two daughters she abandoned when she ran off with Mud Dog 14 years ago.
“You do not want to do that,” warns her best friend, Rosemary (Adriane Lenox, looking fine in Ilona Somogyi’s sophisticated-lady outfits). “Nobody there is going to welcome you, honey.” Sure enough, the God-fearing rednecks of Cayro are scandalized by the return of the prodigal daughter in this year of Our Lord 1981, and do everything but stone Delia when she dares to show her “adulterous hippie bitch” face in town. But the husband she abandoned, now conveniently dying of cancer, offers to give her custody of their daughters in exchange for deathbed nursing.
You won’t catch O’Connell crawling on her hands and knees begging for emotional handouts. This fine actress doesn’t let Delia off the hook for abandoning her children, or play her for a martyr when her resentful daughters undermine her efforts to repair their broken family. In a performance too truthful for such shenanigans, she counterbalances the character’s wounded eyes with an unbending backbone, finding Delia’s strength and dignity in her quiet determination to take her punishment and earn her redemption by putting up with the pain.
And pain is exactly what this family dishes out to Delia during the five years of her self-inflicted penance. Dede, the elder child, is a wild one, on her way to becoming a lush and the town tramp. Even in Jenny Maguire’s too-shrill performance, she’s the provocative mirror image of her mother as a Mud Dog. Amanda, who benefits from Shannon Burkett’s eerie otherworldliness, is the creepy one, a fundamentalist crusader who has twisted her rage against her mother into religious mania.
Delia has her work cut out for her with these two, and her distracted efforts to straighten them out almost costs her the affection of her youngest child, Cissy. The deep understanding and flawless technique that Merritt Wever brings to this character makes subtle work of Cissy’s dangerous progression from independence to alienation. “I am loose. I am happy. I am alone,” declares this self-described “cavedweller,” just before she nearly drops out of sight altogether in the unexplored caverns where she hides herself in order to find herself.
These are characters worth getting to know, and Greif’s direction seizes on every opportunity to put their complex relationships into visual language. The minimalist production design allows characters to run and hide from one another — and from themselves — without knocking into furniture or stopping to explain themselves. The whitewashed panels of Riccardo Hernandez’s articulated set function like screens, opening and closing on recessed spaces that offer sanctuary in one scene and isolation in the next, depending on the mood of Jennifer Tipston’s high-definition lighting. The panels also double as billboards for slide projections that fill in the narrative (“Grandaddy Byrd died sitting up smoking a cigarette”) and offer revelations that the playwright withholds from formal scenes (“Dede thinks sex is love or craziness is love”).
Although attractive and inventive, such staging devices only call attention to all the stuff from the novel that Ryan has left out in her stage adaptation. And they can’t make up for questions that trail off before they are answered or confrontations that stop at a crucial moment or, most damning, for insights that are never delivered because they remain internalized in a character’s mind. In a novel, readers can always find the missing material. In the theater, audiences need to be shown the light.