Mary Zimmerman likes to adapt old stories.” That’s what it says in the playbill for her latest, a new stage version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. And it’s true, to a point. She likes to take old chestnuts (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Kipling’s The Jungle Book) and turn them into theater. But when I say true to a point, it understates, with true midwestern effacement, what she really does.
In Zimmerman’s best work she doesn’t just adapt, she re-creates, revealing something new in the process, as in last year’s staging of the Chinese folktale The White Snake, which was told from the point of view of the “demon” female snake and not the misogynist men who battle her.
This ability to reimagine a work makes her a compelling director—and her best shows unforgettable. And that holds even when she chooses works that many have adapted before her. To this day I can’t read The Arabian Nights without flashing on images from her 1992 take (created in collaboration with Lookingglass) on those very oldest of stories.
So now Zimmerman has turned to another often-adapted work, Treasure Island, a yarn even the Muppets have done a version of. First serialized in a British children’s magazine in 1881-’82 and published as a novel in 1883, the book is still everywhere in the American psyche.
Ask someone to describe a pirate and that person will probably come up with variation of the book’s fictional one-legged, parrot-toting trickster-villain, Long John Silver. Ask what pirates do and there’s a good chance you’ll hear a variation on the central plot of Treasure Island: pirates look for maps that show where they can find buried treasure.
So does Zimmerman find something new in this old yarn? Well, not really. She just tells Stevenson’s story. Just the way Stevenson does. Simply. With dignity, and elegance, and a degree of restraint. Without a lot of complicated Dickensian ornamentation.
But that’s OK. There are lots of louder, junkier, more trumped-up versions of this tale out there.
What makes Zimmerman’s version remarkable is what she doesn’t do in it. She doesn’t tart it up with special effects, lots of dramatic music, or the sounds of the crashing waves on the high seas. She doesn’t try to make it more exciting than it is. Nor does she give us a cast of the usual cliched pirates, lifted from Disney World or any of the myriad variations of Peter Pan floating around.
Instead, true to the book, she gives us a pretty straight-on look at 18th-century life through the lens of late Victorianism. The hero, Jim Hawkins, embodies the values of an average middle-class Victorian kid, with proper middle-class values (he isn’t greedy, his word is good). The pirates, thanks to costume designer Ana Kuzmanic’s inspired work, look like they crawled out of the lowest reaches of society—filthy, ragged, soaked in equal measures of rum and brine and urine.
The acting is pitch-perfect, virtuosic without being overmuch. The young man who plays Jim Hawkins, John Francis Babbo, perfectly embodies the pluck and grit of the book’s adolescent narrator. And Christopher Donahue, playing multiple roles, disappears, chameleonlike, into each of them, delighting without showing off.
The real star, though, is Lawrence E. DiStasi as Long John Silver. Given the role of a character who’s long since become cartoonish, DiStasi finds something original to play in the original Long John Silver, a fascinating, morally ambiguous character. Over the course of the play we come—as Hawkins himself does—to love and hate and love again (with reservations) this charming rogue.
The weaknesses in the show owe directly to the book. As in Stevenson’s tale, the story Zimmerman tells becomes confusing in the last third. Hawkins’s heroics strain credulity, and the final twists of the story left my 14-year-old bewildered—though still entertained.
I’m not complaining. I’ll wait for the next Zimmerman adaptation to have my mind blown. For now it’s enough that she’s retold an old story well. v
Correction: The review has been amended to clarify the time period in which the play is set.