Gertrude Stein:

Each One as She May

Goodman Theatre Studio

The beauty of Frank Galati’s direction is his ability to focus the viewer’s attention on the smallest details and the slightest movements: the way a hat is cocked, the cut of a suit, the expression on a face. As a creator of stage pictures, he is unsurpassed.

As an adapter of literary work, however, Galati is somewhat less successful. Unshakably faithful, even to a fault, he’s partial to long passages of unedited narration and dialogue straight from his source. Galati’s fidelity may be admirable, but often it has the opposite effect of the one intended. Rather than spellbinding the audience, his approach more often anesthetizes them to the beauty of a particular passage. Like a nattily dressed but monotonous storyteller, he attracts more attention to the trappings of the tale than to the content.

If you asked me to recount what I remember from previous Galati productions, I’d tell you a lot more about scenery and costumes than character or plot. Springing to mind are an image of the Joad family packing into an old jalopy in Galati’s much lauded but somewhat dull The Grapes of Wrath and an exquisite backdrop from She Always Said, Pablo. Even in the Galati-directed Goodman production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale a few years back, what sticks in my mind are the beautiful dresses and suits.

In Gertrude Stein: Each One as She May Galati has once again created a breathtaking bit of visual artistry that despite a crew of splendid actors and a dynamite production team is still unspeakably stultifying. “Each One as She May” is actually the subtitle of Stein’s 1909 novella “Melanctha,” from which Galati has adapted this play. Set in an African American community, the play zeroes in on

the ill-fated relationship between Melanctha Herbert, a wild and unpredictable woman, and Dr. Jefferson Campbell, an uptight physician who’s alternately repulsed and intrigued by Melanctha’s free and easy ways.

Just as Galati is more concerned with the images that surround words than with the words themselves, Stein concentrates on a word’s nuances and rhythms rather than on its meaning. Alternating dialogue and narration, she continually reveals the gulf between what’s thought and what’s said. In “Melanctha” she repeats key words and sounds to establish the particulars of character. Dr. Campbell’s uncertainty is underscored by his stammering repetition of words like “certainly,” while Stein emphasizes Melanctha’s “wandering ways” by continually using words that begin with w in her speeches. More than anything, Melanctha and Jefferson’s relationship is impossible because of their divergent speech patterns: his halting talk doesn’t jibe with her fluidity.

Despite Stein’s talents as a wordsmith, she is certainly an acquired taste. And though there are passages of uncommon beauty and delicacy in “Melanctha,” it’s not a work that translates easily to the stage–it’s almost devoid of playable action, and its emotions are always restrained. Predictably, Galati combats whatever faults Stein may have as a dramatist by embracing rather than shying away from her hypnotic, repetitive prose. Using the traditional reader’s-theater style with which he’s forged a national reputation, he employs two narrators to speak the thoughts of Melanctha and Jefferson; when the two lead characters speak for themselves, Galati revels in the maddening repetitions of Stein’s dialogue, allowing pages of conversation to go on uninterrupted where a judicious editor might have got out some scissors.

This Goodman Theatre Studio production is beautifully designed: Birgit Rattenborg Wise’s picture-book costumes are set off by Mary Griswold’s lovely set, which frames the action on either side with venetian blinds. To capture the mood of African American society in the early 20th century, Galati has chosen Chicago theater-veteran violinist Miriam Sturm and piano wunderkind Reginald Robinson to create mellifluous musical bridges between scenes. And the actors are terrific, especially the charismatic Johnny Lee Davenport, playing against type as the prudish Campbell, and as Melanctha the uncommonly pow-erful and haunting Jacqueline Williams, who can rivet attention with a subtly drawn mischievous smile. But when you’re paying more attention to a well-crafted smile or the way a suit hangs than to the words, there’s a problem.

Midway through Galati’s adaptation, Stein’s incessantly repeated words begin to lose their meaning, and one’s eyes are ensnared by everything but the play. Rather than make himself invisible, as every great director does when a dramatic scene erupts, Galati can be seen at every turn. You see the way he’s directed an actor to place a hand upon a knee, to move upstage, to give focus, and Stein’s dialogue becomes a mere irritant. Hearing the name “Melanctha,” which must be said more than a hundred times during the play, turns into what one wag in the opening-night audience referred to as a form of Chinese water torture. Unfortunately this superb piece of visual artistry is a chore to sit through, beautiful but static, like a great painting you’ve been forced to stare at for 90 minutes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Liz Lauren.