Anyone who’s followed the long, sad journey of Addie Bundren through Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying knows that this gothic tale is built on a dish-and-pot nihilism worthy of Beckett. Written in the master’s engorged prose—the most easily parodied style this side of Hemingway—the book details the travails of a family whose mourning masks self-centered desires (from a son’s wish for a toy train to a widower’s for a new set of teeth) and whose inept attempt to lay wife and mother to rest would make for grand guignol if it weren’t so terribly ludicrous.
Unfolding in cubistic fashion through the overlapping inner thoughts of its characters, the story reveals in its interstices a parade of unalterable egoism, none more bitter than that of the deceased and disillusioned Addie herself. Taking this to the stage isn’t easy: Faulkner’s narrative is so rooted in the word that spectacle seems meaningless. In fleshing out these voices so that the viewer hears what the reader reads, one puts at risk the deliciously disconcerting effects produced by Faulkner’s poor white chorus. Capturing both the pedestrian and the exalted is key, and director/adaptor Frank Galati has coached from his actors at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company a vocal style and sense of rhythm whose coarseness and musicality bring both levels of the author’s text into grating and glorious relief.
The Bundrens and their kind speak as if the mouth were for eating only, as if the word-forming tongue cuts great wounds in that dark hole. Neighbor Cora (Marilyn Dodds Frank) is no Mrs. Veneble; she communicates in a frighteningly harsh voice, with an accent that seems to break words to pieces. Ian Barford gives the surly Jewel a stifled locution, as if his mouth is filled with stones. Jeff Perry’s distracted Darl rides on an odd glottal cadence, as if bobbing on water and catching his words between waves. Mariann Mayberry’s Dewey Dell talks with a garbled throatiness, as if the words were being choked out of her. The extremity of these vocal effects not only grounds the characters realistically, but reveals in the contrast of grim utterance and actual expression the meaning in Faulkner’s dense, rambling poetics.
Played out against John Paoletti’s simple set of weathered lathe (whose barren aspect underscores the physical and metaphorical meanness of the lives lived here), Galati’s adaptation celebrates Faulkner’s singular focus on the inconstancy of language without neglecting the theatre’s visual necessity. Jewel and Darl, sweaty and soiled, look like they smell. Anse, the head of this clan and a man known for letting others do for him what he should have done for himself, is downright dapper compared to his sons, his clean work clothes signaling a lifelong opposition to exertion. When Addie (Cynthia Baker) recalls her tryst with the preacher Whitfield (“I would think of him as dressed in sin”), Marc Vann disrobes beside her. They never touch. His flesh is banal and her averted face, clenched and silent, makes clear her view that reduces all to “a significant shape, profoundly without life.”
At Addie’s funeral, folks are scattered across the stage, a constellation of strangers gathered at an awkward moment. There we see, in the hangdog stance of siblings Dewey Dell and Vardamon as they stand by the coffin, the way death makes us strangers unto the dead.
Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based arts writer.
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