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Author Neil Gaiman has entertainingly pointed out the degrees to which language links the lesser extremities of human experience with the final extremity: our own mortality.

In the ranks of death 

Does Will the Circle Be Unbroken suffer most from overkill?

click to enlarge David Straithairn - PHOTO BY SUSAN JOHANN
  • Photo by Susan Johann
  • David Straithairn

Author Neil Gaiman has entertainingly pointed out the degrees to which language links the lesser extremities of human experience with the final extremity: our own mortality. The briefest of inventories here--phrases like "bored to death," "killer material," or "it's to die for"--should prove the point. The words mock our tendency to exaggerate. They also try to dial death down a bit, much like John Donne or the unknown Francophone who coined the term la petite mort once did, to place the Ultimate in some context besides the ultimate one.

In all probability, we're talking about the oldest human project on record: the use of all available tools and strategies to attenuate, confine, delay--or, preferably, banish--death. Historically, its laborers have spanned the arts, the sciences and beyond, though we all know it's a quixotic and ultimately finite struggle.

Perhaps that explains the audience's reaction Thursday evening at the end of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. For it wasn't merely a standing ovation that closed an all-star concert reading of Studs Terkel's book of the dead. Given everything that had preceded it, the audience's response seemed little less than a resurrection.

A critic approaches a concert reading--even one commanding $50 for top seats, as this benefit for the performing arts at UNC did--with some care. In such a circumstance, we know in advance we are not seeing the work in the final form that the playwright imagines it. The staging will be minimal at best--with chairs, stools and music stands instead of furniture or set pieces. Most significantly, the actors we see are appearing on stage after three to four days of work with the director--as opposed to a much more customary three to four weeks.

So we tend not to focus critically on the set, or the costumes: Simply put, they're not the point. We attempt to be more generous with the actors, particularly in a work like this, where most are playing multiple roles, since a few days' work permits only the basics of characterization at best. As always, though, we do try to recognize when an actor has successfully connected with a character on a strong emotional or intellectual basis.

The main thing we look for in such a show is what the script is--and, possibly, isn't--doing. This, after all, is the main reason the concert reading form exists in the first place; to give a playwright and a company some idea of a work's potential in a performance in front of a live audience.

This rationale, however, comes into direct conflict with audience expectations when it is yoked to top-tier ticket prices, A-list celebrities of screen, stage and television, and the conferred status of a gala, season-opening event. All of the above was the case with this production of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. In all, these circumstances fundamentally threatened the production's usefulness to a creative team invested in its further development.

That is how I have approached this production. On the basis of what I saw, I conclude it is how I should approach it: as a work in progress, one demonstrating considerable promise--and considerable work left to be done.

StreetSigns co-artistic director Derek Goldman has effectively captured a broad band of human experience in his stage adaptation of Terkel's 2001 best-seller. But several elements bring into question the work's overall sense of balance.

Though the narratives regularly crossed the boundaries of gender, nationality and faith, the live music in the first act of this production seemed comprised entirely of early Christian spirituals. These interjections verged on non sequitur in places, hinging the narratives of some speakers who appeared to disavow religious beliefs, or characters who took no spiritual stand. In the most jarring segue, Delbert Lee Tibbs (memorably read by Keith Randolph Smith) had no sooner evoked the Bhagavad Gita, observing that "All of the holy books are marvelous," than Louise Toppin emoted the seventh such excerpt of the evening, "Touch the Hem of His Garment."

Goldman may well be over-relying on music, particularly in the first act, to solve a different problem that his script seems to present: We sense he repeatedly turns to music to resuscitate both acts.

But could this be needed, in turn, because several monologues in both acts run too long? The answer is a likely yes. Though we wouldn't suggest cutting a word of Cheryl Lynn Bruce's moving portrayal of Mamie Mobley, the mother of civil rights martyr Emmett Till, on Thursday night it felt like the first act should conclude almost immediately thereafter. After the emotional toll exacted by Mobley's detailed examination of her child's butchered body, whatever followed it before the intermission seemed too much.

Similarly during the second act, my attention--and apparently others' also--began to drift again in the midst of Tammy Snider's story about surviving the bombing of Hiroshima. Though it's the last place we should be able to lose the thread, a number in the audience did on Thursday night.

Should this speaker or others be more closely edited? Yes, particularly if they echo views that either have already been presented or notions so widely known that their retelling has no further appreciable impact. Several characters opined that we never truly die as long as we're remembered, where one--at the most--would suffice. It wasn't so much that everyone knows the parable of the caterpillar and butterfly by now: The true problem was that this telling added nothing to our understanding of it. The observation that life is fleeting is true. It also is already known.

By contrast, it seemed that the observations of professional curmudgeons Kurt Vonnegut and Hank Oettinger earned their way on stage. We were oddly moved by architect Randy Buescher's bewildered account of a near-death experience he had as a cancer patient. In each case, the script was clearly as strong as the respective performances of Edmond Genest, Scott Sowers and David Straithairn.

If Circle needs to lose somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes, perhaps it is because the script tries to solve too large a constellation of problems--much like Indicator Species' The Hardest Question Ever, the week before, at the RadiCackaLacky Puppetry Convergence.

True, Terkel's book is about life and its difficulties. Its speakers take on racism, homophobia, war, inner-city violence, capital punishment, genocide and the vagaries of international aid--and that's all by the end of the first act alone.

As Mike Wiley demonstrated earlier this year, the story of Emmett Till alone can occupy a very full evening in the theater. Here, it's likely that Goldman's text tries to crowd too many causes on this lifeboat of a script. Now we know: This choice leaves the audience feeling swamped well before the end.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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