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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
by Catey Sullivan
2009-08-19

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Playwright: Adapted by Edward Albee from the novella by Carson McCullers. At: Signal Theatre at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division . Phone: 773-347-1350; $15-$20. Runs through: Aug. 26

Heat and silence: They define the dusty, somnambulant Deep South of Carson McCullers' compelling novella The Ballad of the Sad Café as it unfolds in a world where humidity-wilted handkerchiefs are as prevalent as drawls, and moonshine so strong and smooth it makes your gizzard glow.

In adapting McCullers' work for the stage, Edward Albee keeps key events intact but edits their context with a rusty carving knife—which is to say, there are crucial pieces missing in Signal Theatre's production. Given the production values and directorial smarts Signal invests in the piece, the adaptation's flaws stand out in stark relief.

You get a certain, instant sense of mood and place, thanks to Melania Lancy's weathered wood set and a three-piece string band of Elizabeth Bagby ( guitar ) , Jason Adams ( washtub bass ) and Nathan Drackett ( mandolin ) . Through songs including "Barbara Ann", "Erie Canal," "You Are My Sunshine" and "I'll Fly Away," the trio captures the ache of the Great Depression and the beautiful, rough relief such simple instruments and simple tunes could provide in a time of such profound sadness. ( Do check out Adams' washtub bass if you have a post-show moment. It is an extraordinary instrument. )

But there's more to McCullers' piece than atmosphere, and that's where Albee comes in—or doesn't. Core characters are in place, but not necessarily intact. There are two pivotal actions that define the action in McCullers' story, both involving Amelia, the proprietor of the Sad Café. Albee's presents them minus emotional background. So it is that Amelia's marriage and her decision to take in a "brokeback" stranger who claims to be a cousin make about as much sense as if the brokeback decided to fly to the moon in the final scene.

In the novella, McCullers provides a rich, emotional backdrop to Amelia and the men who figure so prominently in her story. But when Amelia marries in Albee's adaptation, it seems to be the act of somebody who is bored and just looking for something to do on a Saturday afternoon. When she chases her husband off with a shotgun rather than sleep with him, it's just, well, weird. Granted, rural single girls could be a naïve lot back in the 1930s, but to get married without understanding that you're expected to share a bed with your spouse? That's just inexplicably bizarre—even more so because Amelia is nobody's fool.

In the novella, McCullers paints a whole tapestry of motives to explain why Amelia—gruff, unfriendly and deeply private—takes in Cousin Lymon and begins coddling him like a long-lost beloved child. Here that tapestry is absent, making Amelia's sudden, slavish devotion to a stranger utterly inexplicable.

The supporting cast here is mostly solid—although, as Merlie, Bries Vannon's reliance on a one-note depiction of somebody at the shallow end of the gene pool gets old quickly. The first time he chortles that Miss Amelia killed someone, it's mildly amusing. The second time it's done. The third time it's overdone, and time to find a new schtick.


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