For Maureen McGranaghan, William Faulkner's life before becoming an acclaimed writer was at least as interesting as his life after. Her new play, Blood of the Bear, which just opened at the Workshop Theater Company, is an effective enough history lesson about the author of titles like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, but does little to establish him as a worthy dramatic subject.
McGranaghan and director Jeff Edgerton take great pains to establish in detail Faulkner's upbringing, but don't build an interesting dramatic bridge between those early events and his later writings, specifically the short story to which the play is intended to be closely related, "The Bear." McGranaghan ties in certain themes - particularly how the end of the surrounding wilderness affects her characters - but that's about it.
The William Faulkner she writes about is actually somewhat generic, an ordinary 17-year-old kid with ordinary problems - he's interested in girls who aren't interested in him, he's sick of school, and he's not sure what he should do with his life, though he has discovered some interest in writing poetry. All William (played by Bradford William Anderson) knows is that he doesn't want to follow in the footsteps of his father Murry (Ken Glickfeld) or his grandfather John Wesley (Noah Keen), though each is eager for him to do just that.
His grandfather, in particular, sees William as an attempt to make up for the failure he had with Murry, who's now running a hardware store and has more than a slight problem with alcohol. He's offered him a job in a bank, which William is afraid to accept, but decides he can't refuse outright. William's struggle to break away from his family's expectations is reflected in the cat-and-mouse game they all play with an elusive and monstrous bear named Reelfoot that is stalking through the woods; as William sees how his father and grandfather react to the threat, his decisions become easier and easier to make.
Blood of the Bear is generally very by-the-numbers in its handling of its character relationships and processing of plot points; there's little question what the outcome will be or how McGranaghan will take us there. Of course, that's the challenge in any play revolving around a famous subject - getting there has to be half the fun. Here, the play is certainly watchable and almost always professionally polished, but it's seldom entertaining and more seldom surprising.
When the play does defy expectations, the results are decidedly mixed. While introducing another actor (Michael Grey) to play William at an even younger age never pays off dramatically, McGranaghan's sensitive handling of the relationship between William and lawyer Phil Stone (Eric Miller), the critical figure in Faulkner's life who gave him real early encouragement in his writing, does give the play some heart it would otherwise lack. These fleeting glimpses of creative, unsuspected interaction and warmth between the two men only point up how cold much of the rest of the play is; flashbacks and internal scenes for William, with various characters repeating their lines hiding behind scrims, don't help heat things up.
The cast is also a bit chilly, if essentially fine; Anderson and Miller make the strongest, crispest impressions in their roles, communicating a sense of time, place, and urgency the other actors don't. Edgerton's direction is good enough throughout, though he might have been able to find a better solution for the numerous gunshots the script requires; in the cramped confines of the Workshop Theater, they register as almost painfully loud. Tania G. Bijlani's late-autumn wasteland of a set is visually striking, and is nicely augmented by Jeff McCrum's lights and Daryl A. Stone's costumes.
It should be noted that, while problematic as this particular character study is, much of McGranaghan's writing is good. One can't shake the feeling, though, that it could be a coming-of-age tale about just about anyone; only a few minor details prevent it from being almost completely non-specific. That's the real problem with Blood of the Bear: It has plenty of sound and fury, but not enough blood - or enough Faulkner - to produce a compelling portrait of its subject.
WorkShop Theater Company