When Rebecca Gilman's adaptation of the remarkable 1940 Carson McCullers novel, "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," was staged at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2009, a controversy erupted over a decision to cast a hearing actor in the central role of John Singer, a deaf mute who becomes a kind of cipher, a human canvas on whom the sad and lonely residents of a Georgia mill town can paint their troubles.
There was no such debate in Chicago, where Robert Schleifer, a distinguished deaf actor with a long history of work in the Chicago theater, was the natural choice for Singer in director Hallie Gordon's new production of this adaptation for the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program. (Young adult, as distinct from kids, is an important distinction here).
Schleifer, whom I have watched for years, has typically been an exuberant and optimistic presence on Chicago stages. But, like all of us, he has grown older. Suddenly, it seems. He also has gained gravitas to go with his handsome looks. And on Sunday afternoon, it was clear that Singer — a seemingly passive man whose own pain is actually hidden under layers of stoicism and compassion — has touched a chord with the unflinchingly honest Schleifer. At the bows, the actor was so overcome with the aftermath of his rush of emotion, he could barely find his way off-stage.
One did not want him to go. Schleifer offers an extraordinary performance at the core of a piece that struggles to extend the heart and soul of this actor to the whole.
McCullers' cross-cutting story follows four main characters: Mick Kelly (Jessica Honor Carleton), a spunky teenage tomboy who hangs with a boy but really wants to write a symphony; Dr. Copeland (Walter Coppage), a gifted and dignified black doctor who must fight racism at every ameliorating turn; Jake Blount (Loren Lazerine), an idealistic leftist organizer whose sadness for the working-class lot, and its passivity, leads him to the bottle; and Biff Brannon (Colm O'Reilly), the owner of the local diner and a man struggling (as so many of us do) to find the right path between passivity and intervention.
In the course of the story, all of these characters (along with Dr. Copeland's daughter, Portia, played by Ann Joseph) come to look into the face of John Singer and find a hint of the solace that the world beyond his visage seems to deny them.
This is not an easy novel to dramatize. Part of the problem here is that a pivotal scene that explains Singer's own demons happens very quickly at the start of the show, before one has easily settled into its rhythms. It does not return and that distance makes it difficult to feel the cohesion of a dramatization that it is very driven by dialogue and that ultimately doesn't find quite the right way to center around Singer himself. Gordon's earnest, well-spoken, straight-up production is honest and faithful to the script — and she benefits greatly from a uniformly stellar group of actors, all very well cast. Overall, it's a production that reminds me of Steppenwolf's production of Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," another powerful evocation of the trials of ordinary small-town folks, although that show had a powerful musicality and a tension that this more prosaic piece lacks.
This current show — both the adaptation and the production itself — could use something to disrupt its very regular rhythms. It's not that the cross-cutting is inherently problematic. We are drawn to the way these separate stories unfold (Gilman's storytelling is very clear) and the likes of Lazerine and Coppage are very moving, just as O'Reilly is deliciously enigmatic. It's more that the sense of crisis — and there is most certainly a crisis erupting in these lives — does not build in such a way that you feel the resolution to be somehow inevitable. At the end of the story, Singer surely can't take it anymore. Since his journey is long, profound and comes at great personal cost, we must feel like we understand its inevitable topography.
One wishes that the space in the Upstairs Theatre was not so rigidly apportioned and horizontal; at times, you find yourself wanted everyone to burst vertically out of their rooms, or at least show us that their aching souls cannot be contained therein.
When: Through Nov. 4
Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye