It took Brenda Currin and David Kaplan to show the beloved Mississippi author how wrong she was if she considered her prose stuck to the printed page: They first presented Sister and Miss Lexie back in 1980, when Welty was still alive. Now they're reviving the multi-part piece at the Flea Theater, with Currin once more as the star.
Sister, seen mostly from the neck up, peers through a postal clerk's narrow window. While chatting non-stop, she irons her capacious mailbag, douses a hard-boiled egg with Tabasco sauce, plays the radio, tends to a sprawling fern that threatens to obscure her, and pursues an elusive fly with a swatter. What's got her blonde bangs a-flutter under a tight bandanna (the headpiece is by Jerry Stacy) is the return of sister Stella-Rondo to the family fold after a brief marriage to Mr. Whitaker. Stella-Rondo arrives with two-year-old Shirley-T., supposedly an adopted child but looking a lot like Whitaker, and then proceeds to convince Mama, Papa-Daddy, and Uncle Rondo that Sister is a trouble-maker.
While Sister cancels stamps on the few postcards she has waiting to be dispatched, she presents herself as a blameless, mistreated sibling, but it's clear to the audience that she's just as guilty of being recognizably human in her pettiness and vengefulness as those she's accusing. Sister's modes of expression mark her as an affronted daughter of the South and, therefore, another of the thousand characters whom Welty indelibly captured in the many short stories and novels for which she was deservedly honored. Currin infuses every word of the author's 13-page tale with pulsing, passionate, pungent life. She turns the comic monologue into a laugh romp with her round face, expressive hands, and now-pleading, now-provoking voice. Currin's Sister is trapped in a cubicle that becomes a metaphor for the lady's entrapment in time, place, and her own resentments.
Directed energetically by collaborator David Kaplan, Currin is just as exact throughout the segment that precedes "Why I Live at the P.O." In this one, excerpted from the remarkable 1970 novel Losing Battles, she takes on three roles: At one moment she's imperious Julia Mortimer, a legendary vocal teacher in her failing years; at another she's gravel-voiced Lexie Renfro, the-teacher-become-caretaker; and just as often she serves as a narrator, perching on the low wall behind which the patrons sit so she can fire telling remarks at close range. As Miss Lexie tries and fails to gain respect in Miss Mortimer's eyes, she represents a daunting aspect of life that Welty examined non-judgmentally. But Miss Lexie is not grappling, as Sister was, with family members -- and it's family with which Welty remained intrigued throughout her career. Indeed, Losing Battles is about a family reunion, a fact not mentioned in the Currin-Kaplan treatment. If it had been, the connection between the two selections might have been strengthened.
Welty was often considered a "regionalist," a term by which she set little store. In here view, Anton Chekhov (whom she admired) was also a regionalist. What significance the designation had for her was its implication that certain authors' works have an especially strong sense of locale. As she wrote in the essay "Place in Fiction," "It seems plain that the art that speaks most clearly, explicitly, directly, and passionately from its place of origin will remain the longest understood."
Incidentally, the Sister and Miss Lexie sequences in the Flea production are book-ended by two shorter pieces, each termed "a fantasia" and underscored by sections of Beethoven concertos, played by pianist Ayako Morino. In these, Currin and Kaplan stitch together innumerable passages from other Welty short stories and the novels. The adapters mean well, but the brief glimpses they provide are less illuminating than frustrating. The first offering is made even more puzzling by Currin's outfit (Ellen Pittman Stockbridge is the costumer), which features a turban topped by a long, black feather. Its meaning is elusive. But if that outfit or anything else in Sister and Miss Lexie encourages ticket buyers to read (or re-read) Eudora Welty, then no further quarrel with the show will be lodged here.