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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Henry Stram
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The strong undercurrent of sadness running through The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Rebecca Gilman's new stage adaptation at the New York Theatre Workshop of Carson McCullers's breakthrough novel, is compelling even when the rest of the show isn't. Gilman and her director, Doug Hughes, who first collaborated on the Acting Company production of the work at Atlanta's Alliance Theater in 2005, have tried to make a nice play and a nice production out of a story that probably shouldn't be nice at all - and isn't whenever it strays too far from the figure at its center. Which, unfortunately, it does much more often than it should.

The key person that is - or, rather, should be - at the middle of it all is John Singer, a deaf-mute jewelry engraver in a small Georgia town who moves into a new boarding house and becomes the lynchpin of the emotional lives of the people he meets. Among them: Mick Kelly (Cristin Milioti), the poor 14-year-old daughter of the house owner, who has dreams of composing symphonies; Jake Blount (Andrew Weems), a Northern labor agitator pushing for change in the South; and Dr. Copeland (James McDaniel), a black physician desperate to convince his daughter Portia (Roslyn Ruff) and son Willie (Jimonn Cole) they don't need to settle for anything in life.

John's disability makes him the ideal sounding post for all the troubles in their lives; and his apparent affluence and obvious good-hearted nature puts them at additional ease. Not that he doesn't have demons himself, of course - he's still coping with being separated from his best friend, a deaf Greek man named Antonapoulos (I.N. Sierros), who's been committed. But his woes take backseat to those of the others, who are pushing for political and personal change that he feels is outside his own particular zone of influence.

But Gilman's focus on all the attendant matters reduces the impact of John's silent plight. Running nearly 400 pages, McCullers's novel has the space it needs to balance everyone's concerns. The play, running two and a half hours, doesn't, and isn't just forced to elide, summarize, and truncate, but also make John a lone voice in a screaming crowd rather than the ear that distills all the sound into music.

The inordinate amount of time spent on Jake's and Dr. Copeland's crusades, for instance, sometimes makes long stretches of the show play as an energetic pro-Communist tract. Mick, whose transformation from tomboy girl to wage slave should be devastating, remains very much a cipher until the evening's final, haphazard minutes. Biff (Randall Newsome), who owns the café in which everyone congregates, originally occupied a catalytic position but is at best a bit player here. The few scenes of John and Antonapoulos together are out of proportion enough that their gay overtones becoming overpowering.

Also a problem is that neither Gilman nor Hughes creates a sense of community onstage. The scenes' highly episodic nature - some are only a couple of minutes in length, and a few are best measured in seconds - more resemble a fading photo album than a panning movie camera. The South should be a vital character, with its panoramic poverty and social inertia always on display, but you don't glimpse the oasis of serenity and understanding that John should so vividly represent.

What comes through instead is a generalized discontent. This powers the play quite effectively as a nonspecific story that both the playwright, the director, and the New York Theatre Workshop undoubtedly saw as one worthy of retelling in our current economically troubled times, but it never taps into any greater themes. That makes the play feel far more shallow than something like the currently running Orphans' Home Cycle, which beautifully equates financial and familial ruin in a way this play never quite manages.

At least it comes close when Henry Stram is onstage. No, Stram is not deaf - a fact that incited some controversy even before previews began - but he's a marvelously expressive actor who cuts himself unusually deep to reveal John's frustrated humanity. He also puts on full view the accepting weariness and encroaching mental darkness that become crucial in John's personal evolution. He makes the point far better than Gilman does that John needs from others what they insist on taking from him, and his performance is definitely one worth celebrating.

Not many others are. Weems - like Cole, Newsome, Ruff, and Stram an Atlanta veteran - has a dynamic presence but little depth of feeling or portrayal beyond generic drunken annoyance. Ruff is friendly as Portia, but has trouble navigating her necessary transition from embracer of the status quo to simmering malcontent. Milioti, whose work just in 2009 has ranged from the abysmal (in Stunning) to the solid (in The Retributionists), stumbles about the middle ground here, drastically out of her depth in Mick's youngest scenes, but locating the cold resignation she needs by the end.

Her final state represents exactly the sense of dangerous inevitability The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter needs throughout. That there's seldom time for it - defining this world from so many angles in the span of a single play of unexceptional length would be difficult for any playwright - is trouble enough. But that the obvious solution (embraced by the 1968 film) of focusing intently on John and letting everything else happen around him hasn't happened prevents the play itself from landing. Worse, it keeps the already-outstanding Stram from achieving the stratospheric greatness of which he and John are both undoubtedly capable.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Through December 20
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one Intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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