The thought strayed across my mind while I looked at Andrew Grosso's adaptation of what happens to be my favorite William Faulkner novel. It occurred to me that stage adaptations of fiction and non-fiction books can sometimes seem like illustrated audiocassettes. They're not quite plays, more story theater -- but often not quite that either, when so much of what's being presented is told the audience as narration. But if they're not plays, they can still be very satisfying. All it takes is an adjustment, which isn't unlike the adjustment made for music videos. And surely Madonna's Vogue is all the better for its visuals.
With Faulkner's story, the adjustment is made easier, because the book is written as a series of accessible monologues (as opposed to the much more challenging stream-of-conscious anfractuosity of the also superb Sound and The Fury). A good deal of the script is written as monologues, although there are also a fair number of dialogue exchanges. The sound and occasional fury in As I Lay Dying is mostly emitted by members of the Bundren family, including -- for only one declaration -- Addie Bundren (Amy Laird Webb), who's not only the one who lies dying but is dead for most of the book. The other Bundrens include pinchpenny and toothless father Anse (Arthur Aulisi), sons Cash (Tommy Schrider), Darl (Thomas Piper), Jewel (Drew Cortese), and Vardaman (Sarah Bellows), and daughter Dewey Dell (Tate Henderson).
At Addie's death, the family embarks on a cross-county (this is Faulkner, so it's Yoknapatawpha county) trip in a cart to a spot farther off from the local burial ground at New Hope. Makes sense, since there's little hope of any kind, new or old, where the poor (inmany senses of the word) Bundrens are concerned. Faulkner wants the name "Bundren" to conjure burdens, of course, and it does. Long-burdened Addie succumbs partly because laconic Anse didn't want to spend the money on Doctor Peabody (Eric Martin Brown) until he absolutely had to. Before the family trip ends, the travelers have trouble fording a stream, stoical Cash breaks his leg and has a cast of cement put round it, Dewey Dell tries to abort a baby whose father is Darl, Darl is arrested after setting a fire, and Jewel simmers because his mother favored trouble-making Darl over him. On their way, the clan runs into neighbors like nearby Vernon and Cora Tull (Alex Smith, Aimee McCormick), whose bridge has washed out. And they encounter sometimes sympathetic, sometimes opportunistic strangers (almost all of them played by Eric Martin Brown and Alex Smith).
These last few years it's become an annoying cliché among theatricals to refer to plays as "journeys." (Watch the smug expression that crosses faces when the word is being uttered.) But As I Lay Dying is truly about a journey -- a melancholy, fierce Faulknerian one at that -- and adaptor Grosso, who's also director Grosso, helms a starkly beautiful version of it. Eliza Brown's set has few pieces of furniture or props on its plain floor of wooden planks -- a table, an adze, a sheet, the coffin Cash carpenters, a stool, an old wooden wheel -- but when the pieces are gathered to construct the cart, the audience knows this is the stuff of good theater: Something will be made of almost nothing. At the back is a screen against which Brown projects clouds or ruffled waters. (She might have tried a few more slides to conjure impoverished Yoknapatawpha, where Faulkner's famous Snopes family, mentioned once, also dwell.) The brown and grey environment remains spare, as did Steppenwolf's 1991 adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic, The Grapes of Wrath, which is an obvious model for Grosso. (Grosso may also be cribbing from Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring and Fall River Legend, and there's nothing wrong with those influences.)
Becky Lasky's costumes, also in shades of brown and beige with the occasional red or blue touch, are as spare as the set. Somehow the russet hat and suit Dewey Dell puts on when she goes for what she expects will be an abortion makes the baleful errand that much more pathetic. Miranda Hardy's lighting (she also co-authored the projections) follows the bare-necessities scheme closely. Brian Hallas keeps the sound design uncomplicated, too. When the Bundrens reach Jefferson, the town of some size that's their destination, they hear one of those new-fangled grammy-phones playing Django Reinhardt's In My Solitude. Airing the Duke Ellington elegy is a subtle touch, but solitude about says it -- or a good deal of it -- for a family that's just lost its lynchpin matriarch.
Treatments of novels always seem to call for excellent ensemble work. (See, for example, the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.) As I Lay Dying is no exception either in its demand or in how the demand is met. Director Grosso has brought together a handsome cast, and for the most part he's kept them from the bane of any piece in which under-educated Southerners appear: aw-shucks readings and cowpie-kicking gestures. Arthur Aulisi's Anse is halting and hard, although the actor can't do much -- or hasn't done much -- to look toothless when he actually looks as if no dentist has ever had to work on him for very long. Thomas Piper has Darl's meanness, and Drew Cortese has Jewel's resentment. Amy Laird Webb in a nightgown is solid, although Addie's too, too solid flesh has melted. Tommy Schrider's Cash is brooding, haunted. Tate Henderson as Dewey Dell and Sarah Bellows looking convincingly boyish as Vardaman also convey the Bundren burdens with nuance. Aimee McCormick is a folksy Cora Tull, and Eric Martin Brown and Alex Smith bring verisimilitude to the cunning characters they play. They have any number of quick changes but they execute them artfully.
The publicity material for As I Lay Dying plugs the novel's humor, and perhaps it's a good idea, since selling William Faulkner to today's instant gratification crowd can't be surefire. My take on the great Faulkner books, however, is that if they're humorous, it's only in the gravest manner. I suppose it's correct to say that as he sat recording the manners and mores of Mississippi's backwoods denizens, Faulkner was scrutinizing and reporting the human comedy. He wasn't be the first to embark on that sort of enterprise -- Balzac did in his revered series, and so have many authors since. But laugh-out-loud funny? I don't think so. Leastways, the patrons with whom I saw As I Lay Dying weren't slapping their thighs and rolling about. They were attentive, though -- like children who, being read aloud to, had ceased to be restless and were quietly absorbing an irresistible hardscrabble story.