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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Rebecca Gilman's play fails to do justice to Carson McCullers' brilliant novel. logo
Roslyn Ruff, James McDaniel, and Henry Stram
in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
(© Joan Marcus)
Anyone seeing Rebecca Gilman's new play The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, now at New York Theatre Workshop, without having read Carson McCullers' brilliant novel first will see an earnest, somewhat static portrait of a small, semi-segregated Southern town in which a group of people befriend a deaf mute. Meanwhile, those who know the book will see a loose version of McCullers' wounding tale -- directed in stately measure by Doug Hughes -- that misses one of McCullers' major points so widely it practically amounts to a travesty.

In the original novel, deaf and mute John Singer (Henry Stram) becomes the confidant of four talkative locals: 13-year-old tomboy Mick Kelly (Cristin Milioti), loud-mouth out-of-town agitator Jake Blount (Andrew Weems), widowed café owner Biff Brannon (Randall Newsome), and weary African-American Dr. Copeland (James McDaniel). The man in whom Singer confides is another deaf mute, Antonapoulos (I. N. Sierros), who's sent to a sanatorium soon after the novel begins for an illness and leaves Singer bereft of the seemingly soothing company.

As McCullers follows Singer and the frequent visitors to his room in the Kelly boarding-house about their daily business, the devastating message of the book is that the four lonely and hunting hearts think they've found an understanding ear in Singer, but are actually spilling their most cogent desires to a man nodding at them sympathetically but barely taking in what they're saying. On the other hand, Singer thinks that he has found someone who cares for him; but as McCullers makes clear, Antonapoulos has no genuine affection for Singer. In the end, no one really gets through to anyone, which is as sad a conclusion about human contact as can be imagined.

While Gilman is mostly true to the melancholy tale, the area where she goes horribly wrong -- and where Hughes does little to correct her -- is the depiction of the Singer-Antonapoulos relationship. Whereas McCullers establishes the men as a familiar sight in their town from her opening sentence, Gilman has the sick man barely introduced before being whisked away with a pained parting gesture to Singer. A subsequent meeting and a projection of the two on the wall of Neil Patel's economic set further suggests the two men are happy together. They're anything but.

No fault can be attached to the actors -- including Michael Cullen as Mick's ineffective father and Roslyn Ruff as Portia, Dr. Copeland's daughter and the Kelly's maid -- all of whom look and act right in Catherine Zuber's period costumes. Michael Chybowski's moody lighting and David Van Tieghem music also help the production. But they're all working in service of a script that fails to do justice to a singular piece of American literature.

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