Steppenwolf Theatre

If you’re going to spend a couple of hours in the theater with someone, it might as well be Charlotte Emory. Both of her. The heroine of Anne Tyler’s 1977 novel Earthly Possessions has been split in two by Frank Galati, the author and director of Steppenwolf’s new stage adaptation. It’s a beautiful production, though its beauty is also its deepest flaw–the glossy sheen that makes this show so watchable also undercuts the psychic chaos and despair that permeates Tyler’s story.

Galati’s clever device of splitting Charlotte into two entities and his brilliant and lucky casting of Joan Allen and Molly Regan in the roles make this study of a woman looking back on her life engaging and illuminating. Allen and Regan have what the rest of the show lacks: spontaneity, immediacy, human fallibility, and the remarkable quality of immortal essence surging against the restraints of its mortal shell.

Which is what Earthly Possessions is all about. Charlotte, telling her story in flashbacks, introduces herself as a 35-year-old housewife in Clarion, Maryland, waiting in line at the bank to withdraw her savings so she can leave her husband and child. Instead, she’s caught in the middle of a bungled robbery and taken hostage by the fleeing thief, a perennial loser and would-be demolition-derby star named Jake. As the restless runaway and the hunted con travel by bus and stolen car through the southern states, Charlotte’s narrative begins to jump back and forth between her travels with Jake and the life that led her to that encounter at the bank.

With Regan recounting the experiences and Allen participating in them, Earthly Possessions traces Charlotte’s strange yet common journey through life. Charlotte grew up in an unhappy but tolerable family. She fell in love with a man she felt would take her away, but was disappointed when her husband, Saul, turned out to be drawn to the security she wanted to escape. To cope, she tells us, she “grew to look at things with a faint, pleasant humorousness” and drifted away from her husband emotionally even as they stockpiled earthly possessions: furniture, kids, in-laws. Meanwhile, she developed considerable skill as a photographer–a profession she was forced to take up after her photographer father deserted her and her mother.

Charlotte’s art is the key to the production’s distinctive multimedia style. Galati keeps the stage action minimal (and always impeccably composed) on Kevin Rigdon’s dark, spare set, with Robert Christen’s lighting suggesting the action’s shift from country road to cluttered house to blandly comfortable hospice. And he complements the actors with a complex sequence of photographic projections designed by John Boesche. These artful, self-consciously populist, sometimes gimmicky images sometimes provide a background for the action (a black-and-white picture of a county-fair arena from Charlotte’s childhood is suddenly washed in red as Charlotte describes a memorable sunset); at other times they expand on the action. Jake’s flight with Charlotte is depicted in a stop-motion animation sequence as well as in movement (the old running-in-place trick). In a later scene Charlotte and Jake sit in a make-believe bar watching an imaginary TV, while on the screen behind them is projected a still photo of the same action shot in a real bar with a real TV whose screen actually flickers–ah, the wonders of technology. Galati hasn’t only staged his script, he’s storyboarded it.

But the technical brilliance of the show–the sleek and slickly coordinated visual and aural design, precise flow of movement, exquisitely arranged tableaux, and picture-perfect costumes (including a grotesque fat suit for Charlotte’s obese mother, complete with oversized bare arms)–all mitigate rather than support the fragmented portrait of a woman whose life has slipped from her control. Though the script’s loopy humor often makes for delightful listening, its strategy of shuffling supporting characters arbitrarily on and off the stage undermines the pain Charlotte feels about her ambivalent relations with them, despite the skillful performance of Kevin Anderson as the impulsive, trouble-prone Jake and the solid support of an ensemble that includes Randall Arney as Charlotte’s husband (a preacher with “one-way window eyes”), Rondi Reed as her massive, tremulous-voiced mother, and Sally Murphy as Jake’s white-trash teenage girlfriend, who’s named her unborn baby Elton after her favorite rock star (indelibly fixing the story’s mid-70s setting). And just as Galati’s epic, expensive treatment contradicted the intended anguish of The Grapes of Wrath’s portrait of poverty, Tyler’s theme of breaking loose from the grip of material possessions is undermined by the very material nature of this show. Only in the interaction of Regan and Allen does Earthly Possessions achieve the unearthly beauty for which Galati aims and the audience yearns.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.