ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Rebecca Gilman emerged as one of the most interesting and talented American playwrights in the late 1990s with such provocative dramas as “The Glory of Living,” “Spinning into Butter,” and “Blue Surge.”
Originally from the south, she was ideally suited to adapt for the stage Carson McCullers’ 1940 novel “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”
The drama opened in Atlanta in 2005, and has also played in New York and Chicago. Now, it is receiving its southwest premiere at the Vortex Theatre, in a solid production directed by James Cady.
What makes McCullers’ novel so stirring is its realistic depiction of a miscellaneous assortment of lonely and eccentric southerners, whose lives converge in a small impoverished mining town in Georgia in the 1930s.
There is little in the way of plot, and the story centers around a deaf man of great compassion and generosity named John Singer, to whom all of the characters are drawn.
Tennessee Williams once remarked that McCullers “examines the heart of man with an understanding that no other writer can hope to surpass.” The two writers are remarkably similar, setting their stories in the south and peopling them with sexually marginal lonely characters desperate for human contact.
The production is staged using the entire horizontal length of the theater, placing the audience on both sides of the playing area. Biff’s Diner and Dr. Copeland’s home are on one side and the Kelly family home, including the small room they rent to John, is on the other.
The scenes are short and usually alternate from one side of the stage to the other, so it’s a bit like watching a tennis match, although the large empty space in the middle is used also. The period detail is precise and exquisite, thanks to set designer Mary Rossman and properties designer and set decorator Linda Wilson.
Cady has assembled a strong cast, led by Warren Wilgus as Singer. One of the difficulties of adapting a novel such as this is that much must be omitted. Singer is in love with a man named Antonapoulous, and the first scene shows their strong connection as well as their parting, although it’s not entirely clear why they must separate or what the nature of their relationship is.
We rarely see Antonapoulous again, although Gilman uses all her ingenuity to keep the character more than peripherally involved, as he is central to the emotional core of the story.
The most memorable character in the novel, for me, is Mick Kelly, the 14-year old tomboy who wishes to be a classical composer (the character is modelled on McCullers, who wrote “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” when she was only 22). The talented Leedy Corbin captures the multi-dimensional Mick with great assurance.
Race relations is another important theme in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” and Marc Lynch is excellent as the industrious and principled African American physician striving to rise above the indignity his people endure in the racist south.
RaSandra Daniels and Marcus Ivey give first-rate performances as his adult children. Neil Faulconbridge, Gregory Ryan, Tim Riley, and Blue Springer are very good in important parts as well.
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” plays through March 8 at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque. Go to vortexabq.org or call 247-8600 for reservations.