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Theatre in Review: James Dickey's Deliverance (Godlight Theatre Company/59E59)

Nick Paglino, Gregory Konow, Jarrod Zayas. Photo: Jason Woodruff

Deliverance, the play: Sounds like a joke, right? If you've ever read James Dickey's harrowing 1970 novel or the stomach-churning 1972 film adaptation, you will rightfully wonder what the theatre can bring to this action-packed narrative about four suburban husbands whose canoeing expedition is wrecked by homosexual rape and a trio of murders. Long sections of the novel, especially those involving riding the rapids, would seem to be virtually unstageable -- nor should there be any feasible way of evoking the feeling of being lost in a hostile wilderness.

But do not underestimate the talents of director Joe Tantalo and his colleagues at Godlight Theatre Company. The company specializes in adapting prose works to the stage -- past productions have included 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, and, of all things, In the Heat of the Night -- and all involved have found a plausible and highly imaginative way of stylizing Dickey's narrative. They prove that you don't need to spill a drop of stage blood to spread terror in the theatre.

Everything happens on Maruti Evans' abstract set, which features a dark, reflective deck and reflective walls, with the audience on all four sides of the playing area. Just above head height, a series of narrow wooden panels bear the following inscription from the King James version of the Old Testament Book of Obadiah: "The pride in thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is heat, that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground?" As it happens, these are words that will become almost unbearably meaningful to Deliverance's four beleaguered protagonists.

You may feel, as I did, that the first ten minutes of Sean Tyler's adaptation, for all its faithfulness to Dickey's book, doesn't quite ring true. This is because the actors seem to be indicating a bit, and also because Tantalo's stripped-down staging seems to be almost studied in its refusal to employ props. Watching the four men, in a bar, mime the business of handling cigarettes and drinks, you wonder if the entire enterprise is going to be this showily theatrical. Later, when weapons -- including a rifle, knife, and bow and arrow -- are introduced and prove to be equally invisible, a faint silliness threatens. But Tyler's text moves with admirable speed, quickly getting down to the ugly business of survival, and from then on there's no turning back.

The canoeing scenes feature each actor standing in a corner of the stage, isolated in his pool of light. (Evans also provided the muscular, highly directional lighting design.) The ingenious sound design by Ien DeNio, which fluently evokes any number of ambient atmospheres, uses the effects of rushing water to effectively place the characters in the middle of the wild. And the story's turning point -- an encounter with a pair of hostile mountain men, one of whom rapes Bobby, the most vulnerable member of the quartet, followed by a retaliatory act of murder -- is staged so fluently that it locks us firmly inside the viselike grip of Dickey's narrative. As the men squabble about whether to bury the body or find the police, and as their race to safety results in two more deaths, you feel in the pit of your stomach how they have crossed the line that separates civilization from chaos.

Tyler's script follows Dickey's lead, wasting no time on describing the characters, preferring to let them reveal themselves through action. Sean Tant captures the highly rational side of Drew, the one character who wants to bring in the police when the killing starts. Gregory Konow does well with the relatively thankless role of Lewis, the group's ringleader, revealing the slightly crazy survivalist underneath his suburban-husband exterior before he is sidelined by a bad injury. Jarrod Zayas makes a strong impression as pathetic, truculent Bobby, who will agree to anything to cover up his sexual humiliation. The evening, however, turns on Nick Paglino's Ed, who toughens before our eyes, becoming ever more wary and cunning, especially during the grueling sequence in which he must climb up the side of a gorge in order to trap a killer. In its hair-raising detail, it more than stands up to the same passage in the book. Paglino's performance generates an intensity that by itself is enough to keep our attention riveted.

It is especially helpful that Tantalo finds a way to stage each of the story's iconic moments, giving each of them its own identity and keeping us from making comparisons to their film counterparts. This is especially true in the scene featuring Drew and a local boy making music together, which carries no taint of "Dueling Banjos." The director also finds a way of staging Bobby's rape that is suitably horrifying without being unduly graphic.

And, just as in Dickey's novel, the narrative pulls you along through one ghastly encounter after another, leaving you both eager and fearful to find out what happens next. Tyler's language is lean and taut as a tripwire; this is an exceptionally fine adaptation, even in the final sequence, when the men return to civilization and must lie their way back to a normalcy that no longer seems plausible. I do regret the excision of the next-to-last scene of the novel, in which Ed and his wife confront a newly made widow, but in all other respects, this is a killer of a tale, offering 90 minutes of high anxiety. I guarantee it will dampen your enthusiasm for any kind of Outward Bound experience.--David Barbour

(21 October 2014)

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