Nights Below Station Street
Adapted from the David Adams Richards novel by Caleb Marshall
NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival
Most adaptations of novels for the stage run into a set of familiar problems. Unless the adapter has seen a play lurking somewhere in the novel, and makes it into something quite new (as, classically, Shakespeare did with his written sources), she winds up coping -- more or less successfully -- with variations on this question: how do you convert the material from a form which depends on the reader's engagement with the perspective of one mind on a huge range of events and characters (the novel) into a form which invites an audience to look at a narrow range of events from all their differing perspectives and come to a shared perception (the drama)?
In many -- perhaps most -- cases the theatrical adaptation remains parasitic on the fictional text: that is, in order to understand and engage with the play you need already to know the novel, because so much can be explained in the two or three hundred pages of a novel that there's no way to jam into the two hours' traffic of the stage. When it can stand alone -- when an auditor who's never even heard of the novel can engage fully and without confusion into the action and the motives of the characters -- it's often become something radically different from its source, particularly because so much of the impact of a novel comes from the voice established as telling us the story, whether an explicit narrator or some version of the author.
When I heard that Caleb Marshall was adapting Nights Below Station Street for the stage, I must confess I was skeptical. Richards' fiction -- perhaps especially this book -- is characterized very strongly by that narrative voice, which flits like a butterfly from character to character, telling us what each feels and and thinks and inviting us to make judgments about them. Further, he does not typically dramatize individual scenes, but often conveys the patterns of his characters' lives by telling us what they "would" do: "Each day Joe would go downtown and see how people were doing. Then he would go to the unemployment office to see if there were any jobs." And perhaps most dauntingly, his characters are often inarticulate: one of the most regularly admired facets of his writing is his ability to bring us the inner lives of people who can't, or won't, or at least don't usually, talk about them. This is perhaps especially the case with the central character of Nights Below Station Street, Joe Walsh, who not only doesn't much care to talk about his feelings, but also has a stutter which embarrasses him even in dealing with his daughter: "Joe had a stutter and Adele liked to mimic it when she was showing off. So he was often hesitant to speak to her in case she would start to mimic his stutter."
To address these and other challenges, Marshall, as it turns out, moves much of the explanation of characters' inner lives to dialogue -- so that, for example, Joe has a number of soliloquies in which he says things Richards' Joe would never say (or perhaps even think), and often other characters have to stand in for the author -- for instance, it's Adele's boyfriend Ralphie who observes that Joe is "capable of tremendous strength." And it's Rita who has to voice the narrator's reference to "that 'back to the land poor' look for those that can afford it," which makes her a good deal more self-consciously ironic than the Rita I remember from the book.
Equally important, the book's locations -- like those of most novels -- include a range of spaces we're not used to seeing on stage, and a substantial number of minor characters, like all of Adele's and Ralphie's "friends," Ralphie's family (especially his "hippie" sister Vera, who is very important to our understanding of Adele's self-image), and others who can't be accommodated in the space of a script, however important they may be to our understanding of the focal characters.
The NB Acts company met the challenge head on. Using the resources of the Playhouse's "Workshop Space" (really the back of the main stage, with the audience on risers against the back wall, facing the closed curtain) the production spared no resources. The set, designed by local architect John Leroux, virtually surrounded the audience; on our left, stairs led up to what we were to take as the children's bedroom; below that was an entrance hall; next, the living space, comprised of a couch with a kitchen table behind it and TV in front; then an empty space used for various other locations; then a decrepit pickup truck, standing in for two or three different vehicles; then, to our right, a space which could be used as other locations like Myhrra's house. The production flowed back and forth through this space, with Mike Doherty's predictably brilliant music and soundscape and Chris Saad's equally predictably sensitive and subtle lighting punctuating and facilitating the changes and providing all we needed to know about where to look and what to expect.
The impressive acting company, too, provided all we could ask in terms of discipline and intensity. Ryan Griffth's loutish and slimy Vye, Karla O'Regan's long-suffering and resilient Rita, Stephanie Carty's brittle and pretentious Myhrra, Jeff Dingle's innocent and confused Ralphie, and perhaps especially Brianna Corey's brilliantly hyperactive and attractive little sister Milly, all helped focus our attention on the plight faced by the main characters. Hilary Ready's Adele (a challenging character if ever there was one, surly, moody, self-absorbed and vindictive and yet somehow sympathetic and endearing) was physically perfect, even if her speeches were often so headlong in their volubility that we lost the substance of them. But in an important way the evening belonged to Robbie O'Neill's astonishing Joe Walsh, who, though he was hardly the Joe I remembered from the novel (tongue-tied and immense, a lumbering but sensitive brute), created a powerfully moving portrait of an indomitable working stiff bent -- by alcoholism and injury, unemployment and inarticulateness -- but not broken. Especially in his relationships with the other characters -- his hopeless, dogged affection for his daughters and his wife, his dignity in the face of condescension from the repellent Vye, his courage in facing pain and loss -- O'Neill's performance was, all by itself, enough to hold the production together in spite of flaws, and make us care intensely about him and his family.
Without that performance those flaws might have overwhelmed the production. From minor issues like the contrast between the blood on Adele's dress when she miscarries and the lack of it on Joe's head after he's been hit with a hammer, or the way we hear the phone ring when a character's making a call, but don't hear the dialogue, to the odd emptiness at the centre of the stage most of the time, production choices were made which seemed inexplicable. Why, for example, when Joe was to fix Vye's furnace, did a stagehand bring out the body of the furnace while the ductwork was lowered from the flies? How were we to understand the truck's serving both as Myhrra and Vye's car and then, in the very next scene, Joe's? Why, in a couple of scenes, did we get characters freezing while the action shifted, but in all the other cases the lighting brought our attention to another location? More important, perhaps, than these matters of convention was the odd contrast between the text's almost claustrophobic focus on its major characters and the expansive, rambling set (the Walsh house feels roomy and expansive, though the household, the characters, are assumed to be on top of each other all the time).
As with the other productions in this impressive festival, the audience was invited to see this as a work in progress, and to enjoy the sense of engagement and exploration that that sense of openness and opportunity affords. The rich and ambitious production of an equally rich and ambitious script allowed us that in full measure.