Carson McCullers's novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, now adapted by Rebecca Gilman, is as quietly observant as its main character, John Singer, a deaf-mute. Through his eyes, we follow four of his Georgian neighbors (c. 1939): a labor agitator named Jake Blount; Dr. Copeland, a doctor who enjoys Spinoza and Marx; the socially eccentric but well-intentioned Biff Brannon, who runs the local cafe; and Mick Kelly, a young tomboy who dreams of music. This slice-of-life is only slightly unbalanced by the dry, Clifford Odets-sounding politics that run through it, but the central theme--"The way I need you is a loneliness I cannot bear"--is too loose, and the large ensemble too compressed, for it to have much impact as a play.
I haven't read the book, so it's hard to say if something's simply missing in translation, but given that the best moments of Gilman's adaptation stem from the subtle, near-tragic growth (or perhaps "acceptance") of its youngest character, Mick (the excellent Cristin Milioti), the observational style seems a better fit for fiction than for the theater. So much is left to our imagination that what ends up on stage often is as fixed and as awkward as the "party" that Singer attempts to host in his room for these four, and it's hard not to notice how undeveloped the supporting cast is. Hughes can't spare any subtlety for Harry (Bob Braswell), who has to explain why Jake's propaganda moves him, and has to telegraph his "shy" feeelings for Mick; the same goes for Willie (Jimonn Cole), whose unjust arrest--and horrific treatment--is really just fuel for the fiery regrets of his father, Dr. Copeland (the generally bland James McDaniel). Roslyn Ruff is forced to do some posturing as Portia, but she at least sells the desperation that leads her to faith.
Doug Hughes's direction is, unfortunately, too smooth to really portray the loneliness. Neil Patel's square flats, which represent the central locations of the novel, slide as neatly to the front of the stage as the too-tidy characters make their pronouncements. His saving grace is that he is able to linger on in some of those moments, capturing the light in Singer's (Henry Stram's) eyes as he shows off for his mentally unstable ox of a friend, Antonapoulos (I. N. Sierros), or the tears of joy Mick finds in the available fantasy of radio music--and what that must "sound" like to Singer, who can only watch her react. The best moment of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter comes abruptly, out of nowhere, piercing the silent steadfastness of the show, and while the rest of the play perhaps requires some muteness to amplify this effect, it would not have hurt Gilman--who can be a dangerously direct playwright (in the best sense)--to add a little more immediacy to her adaptation.
That's where an actress like Cristin Milioti comes in, salvaging every scene she's in. Whether she's scrawling "pussy" or "Motsart" on a wall (neat projections from Jan Hartley allow for this), or unpinning earrings and loosening her shoes after a long day of work, she's made this fourteen-year-old into the most grown-up part of this production. As for Henry Stram, who should be the center of this piece, he's generally terrific, but Hughes's choice to allow him to speak the opening and closing monologues of the play strips away a great part of who his character, Singer, is. It's a tin-eared decision, and it unfortunately has the effect of making much of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter ring false--even when it looks and sounds good.