Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
There is nothing like a dollop of good old Southern Gothic-ism, full of wholesome racism, despair and decay, to suck every ounce of joy from your very soul. Replete with the classic Southern Gothic themes, in addition to hints of future social upheaval, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was a remarkably mature debut novel begun when the author was still in her teens, and published in 1940 when she was 23 years old. Becoming an instant bestseller in its day, the story, set in 1938-'39 in Georgia, Alabama, enjoyed a 1968 film adaptation (starring Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke), was again revived as a 2004 Oprah book club choice before being adapted once more by Rebecca Gilman, this time for the stage, in 2005.
With this production at the Vortex Theatre, director James Cady apparently continues to exorcise his personal demons. This peculiarity of character is evident in some of his recent, all very successful productions. No doubt he will no doubt be plotting my demise for this particular observation.
It is no easy task to abbreviate a novel of this immensity. Gilman, rather than attempting to emulate the 1968 movie of the same name, returned the focus to four main characters instead of the silver screen platonic attraction between Singer and Mick. In his production, Cady stays fairly true to her script.
"Strife is better than loneliness," goes an old Irish saying, indicating the pain of isolation must, in any of its many forms, be somehow thwarted. Cady has assembled a multifarious cast exposing this at the Vortex Theatre, and introduces us to actors rarely if ever seen on this local community stage.
Unfolding with a short explanatory narrative voice-over, we meet John Singer (Warren Wilgus), a deaf mute. He has relocated to be close to his dearest friend, Antonapoulos (Owen Reid Callis), another deaf mute committed to hospital for mental health and behavioral issues. Singer rents a room with the Kelly family, the head of whom is recently disabled Mr. Kelly (Tim Riley, who also plays a guard), and is soon favored by his daughter, young teenage tomboy, Mick Kelly (Leedy Corbin).
As Singer integrates into the community, he is further befriended by a motley local assortment: labor activist, agitator, and perpetually inebriated Jake (Neil Faulconbridge); diner owner and recent widower Biff (Gregory Ryan); and socially conscious, and the only black doctor in town, Dr. Copeland (Marc Lynch), whose daughter Portia (RaSandra Daniels), chooses the position of a poorly paid maid at the Kelly household, while his son Willie (Marcus Ivey), opts for a dish-washing job at the diner. Teenage Harry (Blue Springer) provides an alternative viewpoint as well as a love interest for Mick, while a couple of mill-workers/patients (Atlas Owen and Spencer Scott in dual roles) and a preacher (DeAngelo Bethea) round out the cast of characters.
An interesting time in American history, Mick Kelly is both McCullers' alter ego and our lens: we watch as she and her companions negotiate the murky waters of religion vs education, overt and covert racism, often unconsciously accepting bigotry and discrimination. Then, as now, there are incidences of prejudice and acceptance of injustice being actively safeguarded and encouraged by those with the most to lose.
Fifty-two scenes are linked, by times interlaced, and a wretched quartet are loosely united not just by loneliness, but also by self-absorption and distinctive disabilities. Jake's drunkenness, Copeland's color, Mick's gender, and Biff's recent loss are as alienating as the newcomer's silence. Psychiatrists are professional listeners, but this deaf-mute becomes the sewer for the township's woes. The sole inductee to an unsought commission, they cling to him as their personal beacon, as oblivious intellectually as he is physically to hear the others' cry for help.
I'm somewhat sad but unsure why I don't love this production. I like it, I really do, but I don't love it. And I wish I did. If I had to choose a director for this particular play, I would have chosen Jim Cady, yet the magic wasn't there at the performance I attended. As individual ingredients, the cast, all fresh and healthy and no doubt organic, should combine to form an appetizing dish. In this case, though, they didn't all meld well. Interactions between some cast members varied depending on who they played opposite, at times acting, at other times personifying their character(s). An interesting experience, which makes me wonder.
Wilgus' Singer is admirable, all the more so for his casual use of visual language (shout out to Angela Littleton as ASL tutor), as well as his agonizing display of despair upon learning of his friend's death. Corbin, whom I saw in Wait Until Dark last year, is a great choice for Mick, who falls perfectly into the trap her manipulative father lays for her. The brittle fierceness evident in a later scene at the diner where she orders a beer and cake is beautifully and heart achingly symbolic. In the end, she is touching in her newfound understanding of Singer, realizing the cacophony of her life as a shop girl matches the endless roaring silence endured by her late friend.
New to me actor RaSandra Daniels is a definite crowd-pleaser with her portrayal of Portia, the hard done by maid to the Kellys, friend to Mick, and loyal but abused buffer between her father and brother. Faulconbridge, as Jake, is definitely worthy, but his inability to attain or maintain a Southern accent is distracting. Riley nails the accent in his short appearance as a guard, while Corbin's, along with her signing, is seamless throughout. I enjoyed Callis in his role as Antonapoulos. It is rather odd to see this actor, known for his impressive speaking voice, cast in a relatively minor role as a deaf-mute. He does such a good job portraying his character's selfish narcissism, it's a little scary how Singer doesn't realize it.
This is the first time I have seen a play with a soundtrack custom-made to follow the storyline's crests, vales, and all the landscape in between. It is fantastic, and deserves to raise the bar to new heights. It takes dedication, skill, and a world of patience to marry music to a play with so much going on. Well done to sound designer Marty Epstein and Ludwig Puchmayer, sound engineer. Fabulous work.
Lighting also deserves a mention. Fifty-two scenes are either a lighting designer's dream or their nemesisvery well done RayRey Greigo, and shout out to master electrician Kaidyn Gogel.
The set by Mary Rossman is perfect for this multifaceted production staged in traverse, a relatively uncommon design. I imagine it is like seeing a different play, depending on which side of the aisle you occupy. Props and set decoration by Linda Wilson and costuming by Carolyn Hogan are good, as usual.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter runs through March 8, 2020, at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle Blvd. NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Friday and Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sunday 2:00 p.m. Extra performance on Thursday, March 5 at 7:30 p.m., and PWYW is Sunday, March 1 @ 2:00 p.m. Admission $24, $21 and $17. Due to illness, the following performances have been cancelled: Friday, February 21, 2020; Saturday, February 22; Sunday, February 23, 2pm. For reservations and information, call 505-247-8600 or visit www.vortexabq.org.