It all starts with a drawl. A nearly impenetrable wall of sound that emanates from Jenny Bacon after only a few minutes. Bacon's voice here is distinctive, unmistakable. She wraps her words up like a Christmas package without enough tape and makes sure, whatever else happens, they sound southern. Devoid of meaning, devoid of that spark of life, yes, but devoid of the South? Never!
Bacon almost never leaves the stage in Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate). This proves to be both a blessing and a curse in this joint production of Women's Project and Productions and Playwright's Horizons; Bacon gives the role of the pained author and poet everything she's got. But she gets nowhere with it. Southern drawl or not, do we care about McCullers? Do we understand her? Do we want to?
The answers to these questions are not made clear by the play's author, Sarah Schulman, or the director, Marion McClinton. Their attentions are focused elsewhere, apparently making sure that - whatever the cost - you'll never be able to forget this play. They succeed.
There's a striptease, for example, performed by Miss Gypsy Rose Lee herself (Anne Torsiglieri, in one of the evening's less intractable performances). Ethel Waters makes an appearance (as played by Rosalyn Coleman) in the lengthy play-within-the-play sequence that opens the second act. There's even Tennessee Williams (Tim Hopper) on hand. Plus, lots of talk about sex, writing, and quite a few things in between.
Yes, McClinton and Schulman do everything they can to keep the audience entertained and up, except create compelling and dramatic characters and situations. Of the two, McClinton's does the better work by far: he works with the simple set (designed by Neil Patel), costumes (by Toni-Leslie James), and lights (Donald Holder) all well-tailored to the show (if unspectacular), and eight very game actors to try to make the script work.
Of course, he can't succeed; in fact, McClinton seems to have lost control entirely by the end of the second act. It's not enough that McCullers, incapable of nearly all movement after another in a series of strokes, crawls out of her wheelchair and out of the apartment before her husband (the misused Rick Stear) arrives with their pre-suicide drinks. She must also lie in bed, motionless, almost entirely devoid of speech, while an admirer reads to her from the Bible, actually uttering the phrase "green, crazy pastures," a cheeky reference to McCullers' own writing. The moment is anything but moving and profound.
In fact, much the same can be said of the entire play. Schulman seems to want to mine the emotional (if not the factual) truth of McCullers life, but while we see McCullers abandon her husband when he gets too rough in bed (at her behest) or cavorting with the New York artistic elite (as but two examples), we aren't seeing what really made her tick. Schulman makes it clear we understand her writing connected with African-Americans and that her characters are brimming with humanity, but it's never on display onstage. As a result, we aren't made to understand - or care about - what inside of McCullers allowed her to produce such well-admired works as "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," "The Member of the Wedding," or "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe."
But that's most likely beside the point; the writing of McCullers is of, at most, secondary importance here; it never really appears in the play. Rather, it's Schulman's words that carry the evening, and her own special wit and creativity that see us through the many, many dark spots present in its torturous 130 minutes.
"Even I've had more success with women than you have," Williams says to McCullers at one point.
Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate) just never gets better than that.
Women's Project & Productions and Playwrights Horizons