Almost seventy years ago Carson McCullers wrote her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which took the literary world by storm. She never dramatized it as she did with The Member of the Wedding. Why? It deals with rejection, racial profiling, oppression and the mistreatment of our fellow man. Evils that still exist today that make the themes of her story so timely. So timely that The Acting Company in conjunction with the New York Theatre Workshop has produced the classic novel, adapted for the stage by Rebecca Gilman and directed by Doug Hughes. It will be running through December 20th.
Beautifully acted by the ensemble cast of ten the play itself is episodic and problematic. There is the coming of age story of tomboy Mick Kelley (Cristin Milioti) who has a deep compassion for others and an even deeper love for music, giving up her meager lunch money to take piano lessons. She is bright and smokes to stunt her all too rapid growth at the age of fourteen and has caught the eye of Harry (Bob Braswell).
There is the black family: Dr. Copeland (James McDaniel) and his daughter Portia (Roslyn Ruff) who works for Mr. Kelly (Michael Cullen). His son Willie (Jimonn Cole) works as a cook. Dr. Copeland wants to instill in them the need to better their lives.
There is the drunken radical union organizer Jake (Andrew Weems) and the owner of a café, Biff (Randall Newsome) – whose wife has recently died.
These stories are woven around the character of John Singer (Henry Stram) who is a deaf mute. Polite in the extreme and generous with his time and money during the Great Depression in the South they all come to his small room for advice and companionship; to play chess or to listen to the radio – not realizing that he is also in need. He longs to be with his friend Antonapoulos (I.N. Sierros) who was abruptly taken away to an insane asylum. The gay factor is only hinted at. Loneliness and longing more so.
This production is book ended with him speaking. But when he communicates with his friend with sign language we have to strain to understand. There are no super-titles here. This would not be a problem as they make good use of a computer screen of a back wall where words and phrases appear when the actors feign writing them on the open set by Neil Patel which enables the many short scenes to flow cinematically.
Perhaps it is the electrifyingly honest and detailed performance of Cristin Milioti as Mick that sets the balance of the play off – in her favor. You cannot wait until she returns for her next scene. Perhaps there is too much to immediately absorb. Perhaps the waiting for John Singer to write down in his notebook to communicate with the others makes one impatient. Perhaps it is the many revelatory monologues spoken taking the place of dialogue between Mr. Singer and the others. Perhaps the letters from him to his friend that are read towards the end should have come sooner. Perhaps Carson McCullers thought that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter made a better novel than stage play. As good as this production is, one wonders why she never adapted it herself. Perhaps she thought it would be too episodic and problematic to do so.
NOTE: Maintaining its commitment to making theatre accessible to all theatergoers, NYTW continues its Cheap Tix Sundays program in which all tickets for all Sunday evening performances at 7:00 pm will cost $20.00. Tickets may be purchased in advance, payable in cash only, and are available in person only at the NYTW Box Office.