It's not uncommon for a novel to be successfully adapted for the stage. War Horse, now at TPAC, was first a novel and later a Spielberg film. Many musicals — among them Les Misérables, The Color Purple, Ragtime — started out as novels, though there are probably more failures than hits in this category. (A musical Gone With the Wind debuted in London in 2008, and frankly, the critics didn't give a damn.)
Transferring literary (versus popular) fiction to the stage seems the trickiest proposition, but Blackbird Theater artistic director Wes Driver has attempted it — and largely triumphed — with John Updike's Roger's Version. The 1986 novel, more than 350 pages in its original hardcover, is a serious-minded and cynical feast of words that re-explores the author's terra firma: academia, the Northeast, stale marriages and sexual affairs.
Distilling all the furnishings of a major literary work into two-and-a-half hours surely requires a great deal of thought before placing even the first spade into the fertile verbal ground. However formidable the task, though, Driver has struck a solid balance between plot points and the imaginative ruminations of his leading man, Roger Lambert, an ex-Methodist minister turned divinity school professor.
Middle-aged Roger's life seems comfortable. With his tenure — and an attractive, sophisticated wife and growing young son at home — he hardly needs to endure anything more annoying than the sound of his own learned voice. That is, until grad student Dale enlists his aid in securing a grant to support his thesis that the existence of God can be proven with computer technology. At that point, we are neatly launched into an involving tale that showcases Updike's engaging thoughts on religion and science, his sardonic wit regarding his own social class, his generally withering outlook on humanity, and his fascination with fornication.
The latter is evident in a couple of plot threads: Roger's assumption that earnest God-seeker Dale is shtupping Mrs. Lambert when he's not tutoring their son in math; and Roger's relationship with Verna, his 19-year-old single-mom half-niece from Ohio, whom he tries to help get on her feet but who instead ends up on her back, copulating with her "nunc."
Verna is an unpleasant character who exposes Roger to Boston's decayed inner city and the unsavory aspects of poverty and shattered families. It's interesting sociology to a point — with a Cyndi Lauper soundtrack — and fair enough drama, though the physical affair, laced generously with incest, makes for some disturbing moments.
At any rate, adapter Driver, who also serves as the play's director, has uncovered a great deal of welcome theatricality in Updike's source novel, and his cast of 11 features four main players who do a terrific job bringing it to life. Leading them, in a spectacular tour de force, is David Compton. As Roger, he's rarely offstage, and when he's not directly in the action, he's still commenting upon it, delivering clever narrations and coy asides, reciting Latin and explicating the beliefs of Swiss theologian Karl Barth.
As Dale, Kristopher Wente's early enthusiasm makes a very strong impression; his performance seems to wane later on, but that may just reflect his character's diminishing influence on the story. Corrie Miller is nicely cast as Esther Lambert: chic, cool with stylishly frosted hair.
That leaves Verna, portrayed by Nashville's eternal teenager Amanda Card. Card's recent stage appearances include Tennessee Rep's The Columnist and Larries, both of which required her to portray a brash young lady. This is a less likable role, to be sure, but she enacts it with confidence.
A solid group of experienced local actors portray ancillary roles along with youngster Riley Hollingsworth as Roger's son, Richie.
With the stamp of approval of the Updike estate, and with such excellent results, Driver's ambitious achievement may well find higher-profile mountings elsewhere. It's very smart stuff, and it's highly recommended for theatergoers who like to think — and not only about sex.
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