Jake, a carnival roustabout and Communist sympathizer, lounges in a diner and grumbles, “This town’s full of freaks.” “I like freaks,” Biff, the diner’s owner, protests. So did Carson McCullers, author of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, adapted by Rebecca Gilman and produced at New York Theatre Workshop. Gilman, though, doesn’t care much for freaks. Her plays usually describe ordinary people who often harbor unsettling attitudes and prejudices, which only confirms their normality. Her adaptation and Doug Hughes’s direction refine McCullers’s idiosyncratic novel into a playable, if rather wan, drama.
The action takes place over several months in a small Georgia city. It centers on John Singer (Henry Stram), a deaf-mute in whom several inhabitants confide. Jake (Andrew Weems); Biff (Randall Newsome); Dr. Copeland (James McDaniel), an African-American physician; and Mick (Cristin Milioti), a schoolgirl with dreams of composing music, all trek to his rented room and unpack their hearts. Singer receives them with smiles, nods, and an occasional scribbled reply.
In an early description of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a book she wrote at the exceedingly tender age of 23, McCullers characterized the theme as man’s thwarted urge to fully express himself. That concern makes it a suspect choice for the theater, a place that depends on communication and forces even the most solitary characters to express themselves before an audience. Gilman even supplies a couple of monologues for Singer, silent in the book, so that he, too, becomes expressive and accessible.
Hughes’s direction also works to smooth and improve any rough edges. Platforms of scenery slide back and forth seamlessly, quick bursts of music disguise set changes, careful lighting lends the scenes a picturesque cast. Hughes’s elegance and Gilman’s efficiency combine to render the story strangely opaque. All the action ticks along very nicely, but the play doesn’t engage, and the actors, though capable, don’t make much of an impression. (Roslyn Ruff as Portia, Dr. Copeland’s daughter, is a welcome exception.) So competent and clear-cut is this Southern gothic, it makes one long for muddle and mess.