at the Gare St. Lazare

Perceptions are a function of one’s political philosophy. Or is it the other way around? At any rate, two people can look at exactly the same situation and come away with vastly different interpretations, and that’s basically what politics is all about.

David Madden attempts to illustrate this in his short story “The Singer,” a work that should transfer effortlessly to the stage. Madden wrote it as a dialogue between two men–a bombastic southern preacher and his self-effacing assistant–who are narrating a rough cut of a film they have made about poverty in the coal mining regions of Kentucky.

The film is part of the church’s “Christian Program on Politics.” Pete, the preacher, is intent on showing his congregation “what it’s like to live in the welfare state where all a body’s got is promises instead of bread to put on the table.”

But try as he might, Pete can’t conceal his underlying contempt for the people he has observed. To him, members of a poor family rooting through a garbage dump “look like bats clinging to a slanting wall.” A 21-year-old girl “had four babies and drew [welfare] on all of them,” he claims. And when he does notice the misery of these impoverished mountain folk, it is with morbid relish. “Look at that baby’s little tummy, swollen out there . . . Fred, you shoulda held on that one,” he says to the cameraman.

It soon becomes clear that Pete’s primary objective in making the film is to attack the state government for “not doing right by the people.” While wringing his hands about human suffering, he is far more concerned with discrediting the political party in power.

Wayne, his assistant, has a much greater affinity for the people they met. Unlike Pete, he remembers the name of each town shown in the film. He recognizes that the people are ruthlessly exploited by the coal companies, and he appreciates the scenic beauty of the landscape. (Pete merely gets annoyed by all the film wasted on panoramas.)

The tension between the two men remains subtle as Pete tries to conceal–from himself, mostly–his own callous and unchristian indifference to the mountain people in the film. What finally exposes their polarized viewpoints, however, is the way they respond to “the singer,” a beautiful young woman who showed up one night at a revival tent and, instead of speaking in tongues or testifying for the Lord, started singing like an angel, which made her into a local legend.

Wayne recounts how the singer and a young female follower just wandered about the countryside, with the singer bursting into song whenever the spirit moved her. The people in the area concluded that she had “a calling to sing for Jesus,” and Wayne sympathizes with their affection for this ethereal creature. Pete, on the other hand, considers the singer just another piece of poor white trash. “I don’t have a thing to say about that girl,” he snaps when a man in the audience asks about her.

Although the tragic story of the singer propels the narrative, this is actually an account of two men imposing contradictory interpretations of reality on the same film images. Fred, the cameraman, is a mute. His choice of scenes and camera angles certainly allows him to communicate visually, but he cannot interpret what he sees through words. That job is left to Pete and Wayne, and their conflicting perceptions demonstrate that political beliefs can distort the most objective reality.

As I said, this should be an easy story to adapt to the stage. It is written as dialogue, and the men describe the film so clearly that there’s no need for an actual movie. The production at the Gare St. Lazare, however, obscures Madden’s story by doing both too much and too little with it.

Director Ray Hutcherson does too much when he brings in an actual movie projector. That may seem to be a good idea. The projector’s sound reinforces the illusion that the audience is watching a movie, and a colored filter placed before the lens helps distinguish the color portions from the black-and-white segments that the preacher dislikes so much. But the projector is so noisy it drowns out snatches of dialogue, and, because the dialogue is so vivid, the illusion that we are watching a movie needs no reinforcing.

The performances by Rodney Lee Sell and Tom Wolfe provide too little. Sell captures many little details of an egotistical preacher. His speaking voice is loud and pompous, he swaggers a bit, and he looks powerfully annoyed when corrected by Wayne. But Wolfe portrays Wayne as so quiet and mild-mannered that Sell doesn’t have a strong opponent to play against. The friction between them should generate sparks that illuminate their opposing viewpoints. Instead, they’re so polite to each other they dissipate the meager tension that develops.

If the light from the projector were replaced by sparks from the performers, the audience would find it even easier to “see” the invisible film, as well as the point that Madden is trying to make.