The path leading director Doug Hughes’ eloquent production of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” to the New York Theatre Workshop hasn’t been smooth or easy.
Director Hughes’ most serious problem began when he cast an excellent actor, Henry Stram, in the central role of John Singer, a deaf mute who takes a room in a boarding house, paid for in advance, in a small Alabama town in the summer of 1938.
Organizations made up of non-speaking actors objected to the casting of Stram and lobbied for his replacement by a mute performer. Hughes, who had, earlier on, conducted unsuccessful auditions in as search for a suitable actor, held his ground, which is all to the good.
McCullers wrote “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” six years before the publication of “The Member of the Wedding,” another novel with a lonely, precocious female youngster as a central character.
Mick Kelly, the thirteen-year-old of the first book, almost begs, in fact, to be interpreted as an early sketch for Frankie Adams, the heartbreaking teen-ager at the core of the 1946 volume.
Mick is fascinated by, among other things, music, and Singer, who has befriended her, buys a radio so that she can listen, even though he himself is unable to hear what she is listening to.
The rootless Singer has come to the hard scrabble town were Mick lives and rented a room for precisely one month because he is grieving the loss of his closest friend, a mentally impaired man who has been committed to an insane asylum.
Initially alone and isolated, Singer begins to know some of the people in the town including Biff, the generous proprietor of the New York Cafe, the proud Dr. Copeland, the town’s only black physician, and Jake Blunt, the alcoholic labor organizer and self-styled radical.
McCullers’ gently introspective book has a slightly sprawling quality, and Gilman’s adaptation, probably unavoidably, has something of the same quality, intensified a bit by director Hughes’ thoughtfully casual pacing.
Singer’s reason for taking the room, and his plans for his future, become clear toward the end of the production, giving the play its sad and shocking climax.
Actor Stram’s performance is restrained and beautifully calibrated. At the beginning and ending of the play, he speaks directly to the audience, narrating brief fragments of his own story.
Here and there, Singer employs sign language and, once or twice, “speaks” in the distorted tones familiar from attempts at speech on the part of the profoundly deaf.
Hughes’ cast is fine from start to finish, with special mention due to Cristin Milioti’s
Mick, James McDaniel’s Dr. Copeland, Randall Newsome’s Biff, and Andrew Weems’
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” is so appealing and so satisfying on stage that it seems curious that’s it appears not to have been adapted for the theater until playwright Rebecca Gilman took it on in 2005.