The Mute Speaks!

12/15/2009 12:00 PM |

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.