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As I Lay Dying

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. . . . Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack.

–Addie Bundren, in As I Lay Dying

Frank Galati and Steppenwolf got them ol’ travelin’-po’-white-trash-mama’s-dead-in-the-back-o’-the-wagon-an’-help-me-one-mo’-time-AT&T-’cause-I’m-fixin’-to-adapt-me-a-literary-classic blues. Again. As a follow-up to their 1988 version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Steppenwolf and Galati have chosen another 1930s masterpiece about poverty-stricken southerners trekking through the heat-racked back roads of America, facing elemental ordeals as they pursue their date with destiny.

But the tune sounds different this time–and to these ears much, much better. It’s not only that William Faulkner’s twisted Mississippians and bitter, absurdist irony are about as far as you can get from the populist nobility of Steinbeck’s heroic Okies. As I Lay Dying is also a markedly better show than its predecessor–more honest, more interesting, more alive. Visually much leaner, it’s less inappropriately expensive-looking. Where The Grapes of Wrath was a lumbering technical feat whose obvious costliness unintentionally mocked the desperation portrayed, As I Lay Dying generally eschews the infatuation with design technology that also marred Galati’s slick but sterile 1991 adaptation of Anne Tyler’s Earthly Possessions as well as Terry Kinney’s overproduced A Clockwork Orange and John Malkovich’s deadly Libra. More important, the focus on visual effects seems to have been replaced by a greater attention to the quality of the acting. As I Lay Dying isn’t a perfect work–but as Steppenwolf’s first effort under acting artistic director Martha Lavey, it’s a hopeful sign for the troupe’s future.

Literally written in the first days of the Depression–Faulkner began working on October 25, 1929, stealing time from his job as a night watchman at the University of Mississippi power plant–As I Lay Dying describes how Addie Bundren’s family prepare for her death, then take her body in a mule-drawn wagon to the far-off county seat for burial one baking-hot July. Their torturous journey takes so long that the decaying corpse attracts a flock of buzzards, who follow the travelers like Orestes’ Furies; bound together more by circumstance and hardship than by blood or love, the clan endure fire and flood en route to their individual fates. The eldest son, Cash, a stoic carpenter who built Addie’s coffin to her specifications while she was alive, is crippled after his broken leg is infected by a homemade concrete cast. The second son, Darl, a visionary eccentric whose increasingly stylized syntax conveys his escalating alienation from the world around him, is finally packed off to the madhouse (and describes his own confinement in the third person). The third son, brutish Jewel–the bastard offspring of Addie’s affair with the local preacher–sells his beloved horse to help pay for the journey, expressing in this deed the mother-love he can’t say aloud. The youngest son, Vardaman, is unable to cope with Addie’s death and drills airholes in her coffin (and accidentally into her head) and insistently declares, “My mother is a fish”–like the big one he recently caught and gutted. Teenage daughter Dewey Dell, pregnant after a fling with a farmhand, seeks an abortion from a pharmacist who “treats” her condition by seducing her (“Ever hear about the hair of the dog?”). And Anse, the disgruntled do-nothing patriarch, uses the journey to Jefferson as a chance to acquire a long-needed set of teeth–and a new wife to replace the one he’s just lost.

This relatively simple if strange saga could have been told with the steady linearity of a folk ballad; but Faulkner chose to create 15 highly distinctive narrators who alternately relate the tale in bits and pieces. The speakers’ impressions and the way they describe them matter more than the events recorded. Words–poetic, prophetic, pragmatic, often dishonest or deluded–are the tools with which the Bundren family and the people they encounter try to comprehend and communicate emotions and events. Words are the means by which people “use one another…like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching,” as Addie says, speaking from the grave. The very inability of words to fully communicate the tale’s grotesquely funny events is Faulkner’s theme–even as his skill with language is what establishes the novel as a tour de force.

Why should a great book, which can be perused at leisure, be brought to the stage? Too often with Steppenwolf’s literary adaptations the answer has seemed to be: to create an impressive event. As I Lay Dying offers a better answer: to speak the words in a way that helps us understand them better. Faulkner’s dense prose, which on the page often seems too artful for uneducated farm folk, comes to believable life on the Steppenwolf stage. The cast at their best make the sometimes stilted monologues sound like the spontaneous stream of consciousness the Joyce-influenced Faulkner intended. The actors’ vocal technique and psychological interpretation are not perfect–they tend to mistake loudness for intensity, and to substitute volume for articulation as they fill the auditorium with their thickly accented soliloquies. But the text’s ideas and emotions are rendered clear and fascinating, giving both literature and drama their due and allowing the characters’ universality to transcend the idiosyncrasies of their speech.

Galati is hardly unconscious of visual elements; As I Lay Dying’s stage pictures, often recalling the regionalist murals of Faulkner’s contemporary Thomas Hart Benton, are as artfully composed as the painterly images of Galati’s Goodman Theatre triumph, She Always Said, Pablo. With the top-flight assistance of John Paoletti, who designed the spare settings and character-perfect costumes, and the lighting of James F. Ingalls, Galati has created a visual scheme that frames the words rather than swamping them (as was the case in Grapes of Wrath) or laminating them (as in Earthly Possessions).

Though this is a true ensemble piece, I was especially impressed with Mariann Mayberry, exhibiting much more depth and earthiness as Dewey Dell than I’ve seen from her before; Will Zahrn, too long absent from Chicago stages, clenched and grouchy as Anse; Marc Vann’s fine balance of pride and pathos as the adulterous preacher; and Cynthia Baker’s astringent and unyielding Addie. My only serious concern is with Jeff Perry as the outsider Darl; Perry’s reliance on the same wide-eyed, off-kilter mannerisms he’s used for drastically different roles (including Einstein in Steppenwolf’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile) severely undercuts the show’s final image: the straitjacketed Darl laughing wild at the absurdity of his family–and of the human family, whose obsessions and misconceptions the Bundrens embody.

The daily-newspaper obituaries for Barney Simon, the pioneering South African director and producer who died June 30, failed to note that he worked in Chicago on at least two occasions. The cofounder of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, which won an international reputation by presenting integrated casts to integrated audiences in a segregated society, Simon staged his powerful script Born in the RSA at Northlight Theatre in 1990, and returned to direct Court Theatre’s Chicago-ized adaptation of Comedians a season or two later. Though Simon’s gentle and unassuming manner never advertised the fact, he was a visionary and a warrior, one of those rare artists who actually help change the world. Chicago theater is the richer for his participation in it.

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