Carson McCullers was only 23 years-old when she wrote the novel that would become a classic and eventually be turned into a film and a play. While The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is set in the 1930s, its theme—the search for human connection—is timeless. The current production at the New York Theatre Workshop benefits from inventive staging and a very strong cast. In fact, this Off Broadway venue is rapidly becoming a must destination for serious theater goers. (The previous production, Aftermath, was a stellar thought-provoking event).
McCullers’ play centers on a deaf man, John Singer, who moves to a small Southern town and becomes everyone’s confidant even though he must read lips and obviously misses some of what is said. Henry Stram (photo, above) brings an elegance to his portrayal of Singer. When someone is speaking to him, his expression is one of rapt concentration. Having to read lips necessitates this attention to detail, but Stram also conveys Singer’s desire to truly understand what is being said to him, the words and the feeling behind those words.
Cristin Milioti (above, right) has a break out performance as Mick Kelly, the young girl who wants to be a musician but fears she will end up being trapped in the small town. Is it a coincidence that she is made to resemble photos of Carson McCullers? While both the author and Mick look fragile, there’s toughness underneath. Like the other characters, Mick soon begins to visit Singer regularly. Knowing she loves music, he buys a radio for her to listen to, even though this is a pleasure he cannot enjoy.
The play has many layers as the individual characters begin to interact with Singer and with each other. Although the play has been truncated from the book, enough has been left in to create a rich narrative and the requisite plot twists. James McDaniel, recognizable from his many TV roles, including NYPD Blue, plays Dr. Copeland, a black doctor who, despite his accomplishments, fights racial prejudice and suffers disappointment in the choices made by his children. His scenes with Roslyn Ruff as his daughter, Portia, crackle with tension. She holds her ground facing this formidable man, defending her own path and that of her brother. (McDaniel and Ruff above).
Neil Patel deserves praise for his creative scenic design that involves, not only various sets on wheels that are pushed back and forth depending upon the scene, but also a brick wall that serves as both a backdrop and a blackboard where messages appear to reinforce the action.
While the inhabitants of this Georgia town begin to depend upon Singer’s counsel, no one spends the time to learn much about this new arrival. They know he works as an engraver for a jeweler. They do not, however, understand the depths of his loneliness. He was separated from his best friend, also a deaf mute who is committed to an asylum. He visits, but the friend barely acknowledges his presence and no one, in the asylum or in Singer’s new town, understand how the loss of this connection has left him adrift.
Singer finally gets to speak at the end of the play. Stram’s delivery is riveting. Some questions are answered, some left for us to ponder. Theater can’t get much better than that.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
New York Theatre Workshop
Based on the book by Carson McCullers
Through December 20, 2009
Directed by Doug Hughes
79 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and the Bowery