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Merritt Wever, Jenny Maguire, and Shannon Burkett
in Cavedweller
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Dorothy Allison's thick and passionate 1998 novel Cavedweller, in which an ex-rock singer called Delia Byrd and her three daughters haltingly make their way through figurative caves of the heart and head towards the light of day, isn't the likeliest candidate for stage adaptation. It's an unwieldy enterprise; in fact, Allison has said that she'd break it up into two novels were she writing it today.

Nevertheless, adapted for the stage it has been by Kate Moira Ryan, who was commissioned to do so by Michael Greif when he was still artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. Now, the two-act work has been brought to Manhattan as part of the New York Theatre Workshop's series "Cradle and All: The Changing American Family." The series itself is a noble idea but one which, nevertheless, has something of the didactic and hollowly trendy nipping at its edges. Like all such series, it must stand or fall not on the sincerity of NYTW's issue-related intentions but on the merits of the individual plays presented.

The series isn't enhanced by Ryan's contribution -- or Greif's, for that matter, since he remains with the project as director. Indeed, their Cavedweller adaptation can't comfortably be called a play. It's that awkward wingless stage bird: an adaptation of a novel that looks and sounds like a novel with three-dimensional illustrations. Furthermore, in shifting the book from the print medium, Ryan seems to have taken the advice often given to impressionists who are worried that what they're doing won't be understood: "Tell the audience what they're about to see and then show it to them."

Slide projections by Jan Hartley precede many of Cavedweller's scenes. They function as if they were chapter openings, carrying information such as: "11:20 p.m. The subterranean passage she thought she was following did not exist." Once the slide is held long enough to be read, the audience sees and hears Delia's daughter, Cissy (Merritt Wever), who grows up intrigued by actual caves. We realize that she's having trouble finding the subterranean passage she believes exists between Lover's Lost and Little Mouth. When that's accomplished, it's on to the next scene. For another example, a Hartley slide that flickers into place states: "Delia spent too many of her sleepless nights playing records with headphones on in the deep of the night. She imagined she could push through her despair with the sound of her own voice." Then the audience sees Delia (Deirdre O'Connell) with headphones on, trying to push through her despair.

The many redundancies of Cavedweller aren't the only problem. Attempting to make a compact evening, Ryan carefully retains some of the dialogue but still cuts too much from Allison's eventful tale. Delia's plight involves not only returning to her Cayro, Georgia hometown with the rebellious Cissy but also resuming a loving relationship there with her teenage daughters Dede (Jenny Maguire) and Amanda (Shannon Burkett), whom she had deserted when she could no longer take the abuse that her husband, Clint Windsor -- now dying of cancer -- doled out.

When Delia walks back into her abandoned children's lives, they are understandably furious at her. Dede has become a hellion while Amanda is a religious nut, and neither has the time of day to give their mother. It looks as if they're going to be no end of trouble for Delia -- but then, very quickly, the erstwhile absentee mom has them towing her line. She does this just as speedily as she gets the local ladies, who've been condemning her, to turn into enthusiastic patrons of the Bonnet, a beauty salon that Delia takes over. In a novel, of course, authors have the time and space to fill in the transitions needed; Ryan goes for a dramaturgical short-hand that has the effect of making the various plot resolutions seem premature.

Shannon Burkett and Merritt Wever in Cavedweller
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
For the record, other plot concerns include Delia's reconciliation with the contrite Clint (Stevie Ray Dallimore, in one of the four roles he assumes); her friendship with reality-checker Rosemary (Adriane Lenox); and her potential romance with Deputy Emmet Tyler (Dallimore again), whose wife is also a cancer victim. As the years and scenes pass, Cissy learns something of the world's habits; so does her spelunking buddy Nolan Reitower (Carson Elrod), who develops a crush on the foul-mouthed Dede. Amanda, as she matures, has her own crises, marrying the equally born-again Michael Graham (Dallimore yet again) and going off the deep end after surviving a gallstone complication that she had nuttily hoped was a God-induced cancer bout.

In skimming through this avalanche of events -- which take place as set designer Riccardo Hernandez's corrugated walls shift and Jennifer Tipton's subtle lighting isolates the often isolated characters -- director allows far too much overacting. The primary culprits are Jenny Maguire and Shannon Burkett, who behave as if they're the stepsisters in a po' white trash version of Cinderella. My, how evil they are to Merritt Wever's Cissy -- not that Wever holds back, either, in demonstrating Cissy's spoiled ways. Also whipping things up is Lynne McCullough as a handful of Cayro natives. To distinguish between these figures, McCullough doesn't rely only on Ilona Somogyi's costumes and the wigs for whom no one is credited; she also relies on her own larger-than-life emoting.

Among those who don't apply teeth to scenery are, foremost, Deirdre O'Connell as Delia. She doesn't work at the required soul-searching but just lives it; were she not so convincing as the confused and patient Delia, the play wouldn't have half the appeal it does have. Adriane Lenox, who only needs be cheerful as the loyal Rosemary, does so with coltish vigor, and Carson Elrod and the busy Stevie Ray Dallimore keep well within the boundaries of the unexcessively macho men they're called on to depict.

Scrutinizing the American family couldn't be a more salient exercise at the moment, given that off-beat family constellations remain under attack in a country increasingly interested in doing the (far) right thing. Pertinently, Allison, Ryan, and Greif are all gay parents, and so their interest in the subject matter seems unimpeachably heartfelt. That none of them has felt an obligation to deal directly with homosexuality as a major theme in Cavedweller perhaps implies a commendable dedication to the matter not from a narrow perspective but from a much broader one.

In bringing Allison's novel to the stage, Ryan and Greif have taken it from its between-hard-covers cave, yet they haven't given this adaptation sufficient space in which to open up and become its own thing.

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