The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Adapted by Rebecca Gilman

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at Steppenwolf Theatre
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Based on the novel by Carson McCullers

Directed by Hallie Gordon

Play about deaf mute speaks out to audience

What could appear more innocent than an apple with just one bite out of it? That is, until you learn that the apple belongs to Eve and you are in the Garden of Eden.  Situation is everything.

What could seem more mundane than a man shoving his hands into his trouser pockets? That is, until you learn that the man is the deaf mute John Singer (Robert Schleifer) and that his clenched fists express all the pain and anguish of not being able to communicate via sign language to his only friend, Antonapoulos (Jay Reed), who has been incarcerated in an asylum.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at Steppenwolf theatre

The desire for and inability to communicate mark the haunting  theme of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. This is the tale of a mute ironically named Singer, who not only is deprived of the recipient of his innermost thoughts and feelings but who now, in turn, becomes the uncomprehending focus of the thoughts and feelings of everyone surrounding him.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Fourteen-year-old tomboy Mick Kelly (Jessica Honor Carleton) an unexpected devotee of Mozart, wants to talk to Singer about music. She is unable to recognize that he cannot  understand, let alone share,  her passion. Benedict Copeland (Walter Coppage), the town’s only black doctor longs to be heard as he has not been heard by his own children. He had wanted to inspire them, lifting them out of racial stereotypes but, instead, has alienated them. Jack Blunt (Loren Lazerine), a boozing drifter spouts forth polemics on the exploitation of the working man. Widower Biff Brannon (Colm O’Reilly) seeks memories of a wife whose face he cannot remember.  And all of this happens on the same stage — the characters remaining visible throughout the play — with only the shifting spotlight revealing which particular episode is underway. This draws the viewers into the midst of the village to become involved with its lonely inhabitants.

Mick, Copeland, Blunt, and O’Reilly all have something they hate and a passion that they love.  All these loves and all these passions spill helplessly over Singer, never penetrating the surface. This deluge of words never reaches anyone who can share and understand them although there is a brief, hopeful moment at the opening of the second act when they all gather in Singer’s room — the only time they are together. However, what might have been never happens — their fountain of words dries up.

Carson McCullers’ brilliant book (written when she was only 23), focusing this tragedy of alienation, is now transformed into a play where once again the heart hunts and yet remains forever lonely, never capturing its prey.

High praise to Adapter Rebecca Gilman for achieving what might at first sight seem to be an impossible task — a drama centering on a deaf mute. A novelist can explore characters from all angles. How can this be achieved on stage with a deaf mute?   Partially via narration, but mostly it is achieved though the nuances of body language and the skill of Schleifer, who is himself deaf. Gilman has remained very true to the book’s dialogue and major moments.

Kudos to a fine, sensitive cast, rounded out with Ann Joseph and Derrick C Cooper as Copeland’s children, and Alan Wilder and Nick Vidal in multiple roles.

This production is part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series, which includes educational components to enhance arts for young audiences, teachers, and families.

Those who have never read McCullers superb book have missed a true classic, and while seeing the play cannot replace this experience, it is a fine, and certainly  worthwhile, start.

Recommended

Beverly Friend, Ph.D.

For more info checkout The Heart is a Lonely Hunter page on www.theatreinchicago.com

At Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org, tickets $15-25. Sundays at 3 pm, Saturdays at 7:30 pm through Nov. 4. Running time two hours and five minutes (with a 10 minute intermission).