REQUIEM FOR A NUN
at Edgewater Theatre Center
William Faulkner the novelist is an icon of American writing, but Faulkner the playwright is less well known, and much, much less revered. His only play, Requiem for a Nun, was produced in Berlin, Paris, Madrid, and London before opening in New York on January 28, 1959. It closed 43 days later. Financially, it was definitely a flop. And according to some critics, though it wasn’t exactly an artistic flop, it didn’t soar either.
Since 1959, Requiem for a Nun has been produced only three times in the United States. Cesear’s Forum, a group that prides itself on producing obscure works, dug up the play and have tried their best to breathe some life into it. But Faulkner’s script is an awkward piece of theater, heavy with the rich, dark musings that mark his novels and light on action. The plot moves forward with the weighty slowness of an old yellow dog on a hot Mississippi day, delivers a bit of interesting action, then lumbers off again with the same heavy weightedness.
Requiem for a Nun is basically a character study suited to treatment in a novel (in fact it was first published, in 1951, as a sort of play/novel, with long prose introductions for each act). Temple Drake Stevens is a fallen southern woman, the victim of circumstances and her own sexual desire, whose reckless wantonness brings about the death of her six-month-old child.
But understanding the who, what, where, when, and why of this play is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, because all the important action happens before the curtain goes up. Bit by bit we learn that Temple, her husband Gowan, and their cousin Gavin have just come home from the courthouse, where a verdict in a murder trial was delivered. The accused–described numerous times as a “nigger dope-fiend whore that murders white children”–has been found guilty and will be sentenced to death. And cousin Gavin is the lawyer who represented her.
It seems nothing more need be said or done. The woman has admitted to killing Temple and Gowan’s baby. It’s time to move on and rebuild their shattered life. But Faulkner plants a bit of a mystery. Not a tantalizing “who done it” mystery, just a question as to why this woman–the nurse hired to care for the children–would kill a six-month-old infant. Unfortunately, Faulkner plants it in such a dull way we hardly care why this baby was killed.
By the end of the play, we still don’t care. Not even after we find out that Temple had once been kidnapped, held prisoner in a Memphis whorehouse, “and loved it,” not even after we find out that Nancy Manningoe, the nurse, had guarded the door while Temple was kept as a sex slave.
If director Greg Cesear had more carefully sculpted Faulkner’s murky action, perhaps this shapeless play would have had some suspense. But emotions neither build nor subside, and Cesear’s stiff blocking makes any potential dramatic conflict fall flat.
Much of this flatness can also be blamed on poor acting. Heidi Margaret Fecht as Temple comes off as more of a suburban bimbo than a grown woman who could actually find joy while being held prisoner in a whorehouse. This play should be an exploration of Temple’s sexuality, and Fecht exudes about as much sexuality as a prune. The supporting male actors–Keli Dean Hook as Gavin and Andy Caporoso as Gowan–are equally unsexy: they walk about onstage aimlessly, as if they’d just realized they have bodies but haven’t quite figured out where to put them.
The most refreshing performance comes from Holly Hancock as Nancy Manningoe. Hancock has a naturally strong stage presence that carries her through some of the more awkward moments in the script (except when she has to exclaim, “Because I believes! I believes!”–a line that would make almost any self-respecting actress wince). She adds a bit of excitement, but by the time of her entrance near the end of the second act this production is far too tired for her to wake it up.