In Rebecca Gilman's adaptation of Carson McCullers' 1940 debut novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
(at New York Theater Workshop through December 20) one of the key themes is silence; the way the characters endure it, the ways they converse with it, and most controversially, the ways in which they break it. Gilman's stage version, directed by Doug Hughes (Doubt
), stays true to the novel for the most part, and does well conveying the key sequences and events in the plot, without making the story seem disjointed, as is sometimes the result of such adaptations. Gilman strikes a calculated balance between pace and length, moving the action forward without seeming rushed, but at over 2 hours (somehow the Times review
called this a "surface sketch"), including intermission, a little imbalance might have gone a long way to help focus the work. Also, Gilman's most conspicuous addition to the narration involves a deaf mute character speaking, therefore disbarring a deaf and mute actor from playing what has essentially become a coveted and hard role to find in contemporary theater, has overshadowed much of the worth of the play in critical circles and the disability community
What is perplexing is that Gilman, whose resume has been more or less built on stirring controversy
and offending the audience (her racially charged Spinning into Butter
has one of the white female characters make the remark that, "Toni Morrison's Beloved
sucks"), said in an interview with the Times
that she, for once, wasn't trying to rake any muck. "I've written plays where I intended to offend people," Gillman told the Times
, "but [The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
] is not one of those plays." The problem with this public outcry is that the play and the book, despite being primarily about a deaf and mute character, reach for far broader and more universal themes and focus on deaf and muteness as an allegorical representation of the human predicament, namely our inability to convey our thoughts honestly, always, and listen to each other and each other's differences. Which begs the question: Why the addition and was it necessary, or are we truly just missing the point?
In McCullers' novel and Gilman's play, John Singer (played by a resilient Henry Stram, in a role demanding expression through physicality alone), a deaf mute jewelry engraver, interacts with four contemporary stereotypes that become representative of the desire for change and realization of ambitions of people within a small town in Georgia in the 30s. These include Dr. Copeland (played by the stoic James McDaniel) an African American physician, plagued by consumption, trying to organize an all black march on Washington; Jake (my favorite performance, by the goofy Andrew Weems) the itinerant, drunken, reader of Marx, would-be communist labor rabble-rouser, hell bent on saving the working man; Biff (played by a sometimes creepy Randal Newsome), the diner owner whose recent loss of his wife is renewing in him previously suppressed trans-gender tendencies, which he directs at Mick, innocently, but he comes off as a pedophile; and Mick Kelly (a commanding Cristin Milioti in a tough coming-of-age role), a strikingly autobiographical
treatment on the part of McCullers, dreaming of becoming a composer but settles for a Macy's counter girl to save her father's house. Singer's best friend (and possibly/probably lover), a fellow deaf mute named Antannapoulis is committed to an institution, essentially separating them save for one visitation at Christmas. This causes Singer to fall into depression and move into a boarding house, the catalyst for meeting the other players in the drama.
The beauty and vision of the novel is two-fold: Even as McCullers details the pain of the loss that Singer feels through thoughts and letters, Singer becomes the confidant of the four other characters, and because of his unique situation as a deaf mute who can only read lips, the conversations become one-sided and no one ever asks Singer why he is so sad, despite his willingness to "listen" as the others complain about their problems. The resulting dramatic effect is to pit the emotions and feelings of one seemingly inconsequential man against broader themes of race, fascism, feminism and homosexuality, and their treatments in the time period. It is here that Gilman probably ran into her problem of perception, which might have forced the addition of the speaking parts of Singer. In a novel we can read the thoughts and letters of a deaf and mute character, but on the stage, unless the audience is well versed in sign language (Stram learned quite a bit of American Sign Language for the role, and the words he signs are actually written out in the script), we are only left with how the other characters fill in the blanks and Singer's body language. This was the beauty of the piece without Gilman's addition of narration by Singer. You can never truly know what Singer thinks (making his final act all the more surprising), which reinforces the notion that you can never truly know what goes on in another person's head.
These characters are so representative of the extreme other in their society at the time that they've grown accustomed to conversing with themselves anyway. They have no one to talk, so Singer is the perfect sympathizer who merely seems to nod his head in agreement no matter what is said. Singer accompanies Dr. Copeland on his rounds and by the time they return, Dr. Copeland has fallen into a deep respect for Mr. Singer; he has finally found someone who will listen wihtout interruption to his endless proselytizing on the predicament of the African American in the South. It is left to the audience, however, to decide just how much Singer is "hearing," or how much he really cares. There are numerous instances where Dr. Copeland makes grandiloquent points about race, but Singer has his back turned, looking at some architectural detail of the doctors house. Without vision, the world completely disappears for Singer.
Similarly, Singer buys a radio for Mick to listen to so she doesn't have to sneak into other people's bushes to hear her favorite programs. Although Mick is grateful, the irony of the purchase, as Singer does not make an outright gift of the radio, is lost on Mick as she swoons over Behthoven's 5th Symphony explaining it outwardly, closing her eyes to hear it better, and finally becoming silent, as Singer looks on, confused, perplexed, but above all else sharing only in the contagious joy on Mick's face. She does not realize that he has never heard music and never will. At the beginning of the second act, there is a scene in which Singer throws a little party for his four friends in his cramped room at the boarding house; the effort is a tad pathetic, but endearing. Mick sits on the bed with the chess board, Dr. Copeland stands by the door still with his coat on, Jake sits on the chair drinking a bottle of Muscatel, and Biff stands in the back, hat in hand. Singer tries to offer them refreshments, though none accept them, and Biff asks, "Do y'all meet here regularly?" to which the reply in unison is, "No." The usually talkative bunch, when alone with Singer, instantly clam up in the presence of people that are different, and refuse to speak. To them Singer can take on the role of any of their predicaments, because he never offers his own.
In the play's closing scene, Biff sifts through Singer's papers as Jake says his farewells. The troupe of misfits that never knew each other is disbanding because their leader is gone. Mick enters and orders a beer and Singer appears eerily downstage in the spotlight and simultaneously signs and recites a letter he wrote to his dearest and departed friend Antannapoulis (I. N. Sierros, in a brief but pivotal role). Singer explains to the audience what we could only surmise before about his comrades in otherness. The explanation letter detracts from the nuance and subtlety of Stram's performance; it is a neat little tying off, a recap, a succinct closing paragraph in an otherwise gratifyingly indefinite essay on the human psyche. It is unnecessary and annoying, breaking down the complex character built painstakingly by Stram, into a man-boy who does not comprehend what he sees.
Adapting novels to the screen and stage is never an easy task for any writer, as there are always many questions regarding interpretation: what to cut, what to add, what to twist and skew, what to change completely, and of course, how to do it all in such a way so as not to completely destroy the text you're working with. Take, for example, Von Stroheim's Greed
, a literal adaptation of Frank Norris' 1899 novel, McTeague
, an epic silent film that ran to just under 16 hours and when cut down to a passable 2, became completely incoherent and just as impossible to sit through in its entirety as it was in the Stroheim's original cut. Conversely, playwrights have found more success in borrowing from story lines and creating amalgamations of characters, such as Rogers and Hammerstein's interpretation of James A. Michener's novel Tales of the South Pacific
, in which the title was eventually shortened and became the steamy musical South Pacific
. Historically, this more loose form of adaptation has always garnered greater success than the closer reading.
In Gilman's re-imagining of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
it is hard to say which school of thought the playwright truly followed. The interpretation was not exactly literal, given that the additions, though few, were pronounced rather than nuanced. In regards to the role of Singer given to a speaking actor, instead of a deaf mute player, the possibility of casting oversight presents itself; Gilman's stage directions call for either what was presented in this production, or for the actor playing Biff to recite the lines as the actor playing Singer signs them. But perhaps it is truly besides the point of the production and message of McCullers (deaf acting community outrage aside) and those speaking additions should never have been made at all. Singer's silence is a powerful device that has the potential to leave the audience speechless.
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)