THEATRE REVIEW: AS I LAY DYING
Pictured: Dean Gilmour, Nina Gilmour, Dan Watson, Julian De Zotti
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
18 MARCH 2013
In bringing a great work of literature to the stage, the goal should always be to capture the flavour and essence of the source work, rather than to simply re-tell its story, chapter and verse. And when the great work of literature in question is a complex piece of fiction like William Faulkner's ground-breaking AS I LAY DYING, capturing even the flavour and the essence represents a major challenge.
Happily, it's a challenge the collaborative company assembled by Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith, principals of the long-running Theatre Smith-Gilmour, proves to be more than capable of meeting in a new stage adaptation that had its world première on the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage Wednesday.
A sort of Southern Gothic precursor to The Grapes of Wrath, complete with internal monologues, AS I LAY DYING tells the hard-scrabble story of the impoverished Bundren clan as they undertake the burial of deceased matriarch Addie (played by Smith) in far-away Jefferson (where she grew up), thus keeping a promise made to her in life by her shiftless, toothless husband Anse (Gilmour), whom she despised.
And so, despite tremendous hardship, much of it self-inflicted, the bereaved patriarch marshals the couple's brood — the dependable Cash (Dan Watson), the loquacious Darl (Julian De Zotti), the untameable Jewel (Benjamin Muir), the reluctantly fecund Dewey Dell (Nina Gilmour) and the wide-eyed Vardaman (Daniel Roberts) — and undertakes a mule-powered voyage across rural Mississippi, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, good taste, a perpetual shortage resources and pretty much anything Mother Nature can throw in their way.
Rich in both occasion and character, this is a story that places a heavy demand on its cast, demanding that most take on several other roles in addition to their Bundren incarnation. And happily, working with simple costume elements and nose pieces, they successfully transform themselves into the required multitude as the Dundrens make their dolorous passage, charged with an increasingly noisome cargo that festers like the deep-rooted family secrets and antagonisms that travel with it.
Growing as it does from Smith-Gilmour's long tradition of mime and clowning, this take on AS I LAY DYING does, on occasion, feel a little over-simplified as it unfolds on an uncluttered and versatile set designed by Teresa Przybylski (who also created the costuming), but in the main, it is riveting theatre. This is an American tragedy, spiced by just the faintest lashings of black humour, applied with a master's touch.
That's all tribute to the skill and creative vision of a strong ensemble, enriched by particularly vivid performances from Muir (who could be the world's first-ever horseless bronc riding champion), Gilmour the younger (who transforms desperation into a palpable companion) and Watson (who provides the heart and moral anchor of the tale).
And while, in the end, one may find oneself wishing they had honed it to a darker edge on occasion, one can't help but be hugely impressed by what they have achieved nonetheless — and chances are, like fine wine, this will no doubt improve with age.