The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
November 30, 2009
The small late-1930s Southern town that is the setting of Rebecca Gilman's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (adapted from Carson McCullers's 1940 novel, which I have not read) is a place of many hardships, evoked as the background rather than the foreground of the story here: the shadow of the Great Depression, lost jobs, crippling injuries and life-threatening illnesses, a vague yet uneasy awareness of the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, poverty, racial tension, injustice. The play is relentlessly intimate, a series of vignettes about loneliness, social atomization, the struggle for and all too often the failure of communication—between members of different races, between generations, within families, between Northerners and Southerners, and ultimately between anyone at all.
This character at the center of it all is John Singer, a deaf and mute jewelry engraver who's been forced to seek a new home after his longtime companion, Antonapoulos—who is also deaf and mute—is consigned to an institution by his family. For ten years, Singer has been content with no other company but Antonapoulos; now he's thrown back into isolation, with no one else around who understands sign language, requiring Singer to write down his every utterance. He finds a room at the Kelly house and begins taking his meals at the local diner, and in both places others start gravitating toward him, seeing in his silence and kindness a possibility for emotional connection—or at least the possibility of being listened to—that none has found elsewhere: Mick, the Kellys' teenaged daughter, who yearns to become a musician but also wants to help her family economically; Biff, the owner of the diner, who's recently lost his wife and takes a somewhat uncomfortable interest in Mick; Jake, an alcoholic labor organizer whose speeches aren't falling on particularly fertile ground in this area; and Dr. Copeland, the town's only African American physician, who is battling both tuberculosis and his own children, who haven't lived up to his expectations that they all take up elite professions. The play's panorama extends out from these characters: to Mick's father, struggling to start a watch-repair business after an injury forces him out of his former line of work; to Harry, the Kellys' teenaged neighbor, who works at the diner and nurtures a fragile relationship with Mick; to Portia, the Kellys' housekeeper and Copeland's daughter, and her brother Willie, who ends up in prison after a fight at a brothel; to a mysterious preacher who chalks Biblical texts on walls around town.
All of this plays out against a constant undercurrent of economic hardship: the Kellys struggle to pay Portia on time and fear losing their house; Jake runs up an unpayable tab at the diner; Copeland solicits Christmas donations of food and clothing to help his poorer patients while running nearly on empty himself.
Gilman's adaptation seems to struggle at times to translate the novel into theatrically effective language; where the book offers full chapters from the perspective of each character, the play proceeds in small, intimate scenes, some of them tiny fragments in a mosaic and some of them more fleshed-out segments that nonetheless juxtapose rather than evolve into each other. The episodic nature is sometimes a strength—crystallizing what might in the novel have been long passages of exposition or description into brief yet haunting, elliptical scenes—and sometimes a weakness, throwing in either hard lumps of exposition, or bits and pieces whose relevance or connection never became entirely clear to me. The decision to frame the play through Singer's narration—spoken aloud by Singer, a choice that I have intensely mixed feelings about—provides a solid emotional anchor, and a prism through which to view the action, but also leads to an ending that works intellectually but feels too symmetrical, too tidy (albeit heartbreakingly so), emotionally.
Yet where the language sometimes stumbles, the production's visual elements—both as laid out in the script and as realized in Doug Hughes's staging, Neil Patel's scenic design, Catherine Zuber's costumes, and, especially, Jan Hartley's richly evocative projections—create an unusual and effective dual focus. Four different areas—the diner counter, Singer's bedroom, the Kelly kitchen, and Dr. Copeland's living room—coexist throughout, with additional locations (the carnival where Jake works; the mill town where he tries to enlist workers to a union; the riverbank where Mick and Harry have a picnic, etc.) brought in by projected backdrops; while the bulk of the action takes place in one location, characters inhabit the others in silhouette. So the full stage picture always simultaneously captures the feel of the community and an individual moment for one, or a few, of the characters.
The ensemble cast is strong overall; I especially liked James McDaniel as Copeland, bringing interesting shades to a character who is both emotionally closed-off and prone to lecturing, Cristin Milioti as the simultaneously tomboyish and dreamy Mick, and Andrew Weems as the rough-edged philosopher Jake.
I found the play beautifully staged, thought-provoking, and often quite moving—but I also kept finding myself wishing I could rush out and read the novel at intermission, that there was something elusive not being entirely captured on stage.