Prop Theatre and Eagle Mountain Productions

Some fiction begs to be adapted for the stage. The rich dialogue and eccentric characters of Charles Dickens, for example, were created by a man who obviously loved the theater. Eudora Welty’s characters practically walk onto the stage under their own power.

But Sally in a Dark Place begs to be turned into a short story or novel. Most of this descent into hell is described, not enacted, by the woman who experiences it, and the other characters exist almost solely through her descriptions of them.

On top of that, the three actresses in the Prop Theatre and Eagle Mountain production take turns portraying the narrator, so this character never even becomes embodied in a single performer. Which ensures that the narrator’s words, not the interplay of action and dialogue, remain in the foreground.

Anyone who adapts literature for the stage must grapple with the problem of transforming the narrator’s voice into stage action. But Dan Sutherland, the author of Sally in a Dark Place and the director of this production, actually created this problem for himself by writing the play in the narrator’s voice and then keeping the stage action to a minimum. The result is a play that is often confusing and at times even a little annoying–unless you enjoy listening to stories read out loud.

Sally is a young woman who grew up with two aunts in an old Victorian mansion in Calumet, Michigan, a once bustling mining town in the Upper Peninsula that has shriveled into a forlorn outpost of a few hundred people. While working for a local-access cable-TV station, Sally produces a documentary about a notorious miners’ strike that racked Calumet in its heyday. Her film is picked up by PBS for broadcast nationwide, and she earns a modicum of fame and respect. She also earns the enmity of the townspeople. “The people at the access station hated me for it,” she tells the audience. “I had broken one of the unwritten rules of isolated Michigan: never rise above your station in life. Never cause a fuss and draw attention to yourself. Never give people a reason to envy you.” (The three actresses divide these lines among themselves.)

So Sally sells the old mansion and moves to Los Angeles, convinced that someone will certainly want to hire an award-winning documentary filmmaker. She’s wrong of course and ends up editing hard-core porn films. Then, after stumbling upon the sordid history of the house she grew up in, memories of her own childhood sexual abuse come flooding back, and she starts working in front of the camera.

Sally’s sojourn in Los Angeles is full of the freakish depravity Nathanael West captured so well in The Day of the Locust. The owner of the porn operation, for example, is an obese man with an eye for little girls. “Lucky could have had a grade-school sex slave for round-the-clock duties,” Sally says. “But the Good Lord . . . chose to show all of us mercy. Lucky’s entire circulatory system was so occluded with fat that any exertion might lead to a coronary. An erection, let alone an ejaculation, would have killed this lardy pervert.” Details about “inserts”–close-up shots of fornication–along with Sally’s vivid account of her visit to the Museum of Prostitution in Virginia City, Nevada, add a wonderfully surreal quality to the depravity.

The three actresses–Ariel Brenner, Millicent Hurley, and Cecelia Klinger–all give deadpan performances, presumably at Sutherland’s instruction. They deliver their lines like poets reciting their own work who deliberately add little inflection so nothing will distract listeners from the words themselves.

That seems to be Sutherland’s strategy. He presents his play like a good ghost story told in a dark room, where the listener’s imagination must conjure the scenes. But this story would have worked even better on the page.