by Samuel L. Leiter
I first saw the movie version of James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance, a story of survival in the backwoods of North Georgia, when it appeared 42 years ago, and unlike most of the thousands of films I’ve seen since then, it has stuck in my mind like a fly on flypaper. I’m sure I share this feeling with millions of others who at one time or another have viewed this tale of four Atlanta businessmen talked by their most machismo buddy into a weekend of camping and canoeing down a raging river soon to be dammed. It is they, however, who find what it is to be damned as they encounter not only the dangers of this wild stretch of water but the threat from the allegedly inbred locals after they are accosted by a couple of dangerously suspicious redneck moonshiners operating a nearby still.
Turning Dickey’s story, with its numerous scenes of extreme physical action, into a play would seem to be an artistic challenge almost as difficult as the excursion of these mostly unprepared city slickers into the fearful Georgia wilderness. But Sean Tyler’s adaptation of Dickey’s novel—whose dialogue preserves much of his colloquially poetic prose—comes pretty close to capturing the extreme tension of this white-knuckle story. It is helped enormously by Godlight Theatre Company’s production, directed by Joe Tantalo in the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters, which offers a sharply theatrical, gut-punching, stripped-down rendition that will keep you nailed to your seat during its speedy 80 minutes.
Only when the play, unable to find a more inventive theatrical method, shifts from dialogue to diegesis—direct narrative that explains and describes rather than showing (especially during Ed’s climb up a cliff)—does the adaptation falter. It is also hard for anyone familiar with the movie to become as fully engrossed in the performance as someone who has never seen it; that the production succeeds as much as it does is a tribute to the creative team. If this were a new work without the baggage of a nearly half-century long place in the pantheon of adventure thrillers, it would certainly be hailed for its suspenseful power.
The plot has been pared back to its essentials with a well-honed editorial blade and a few liberties have been taken. Perhaps most notably, when compared to the screen version, a modest dueling guitar and banjo number has replaced the famous dueling banjo sequence between Drew (Sean Tant; Ronny Cox in the movie) and an unforgettably odd but prodigiously talented teenage boy, Lonnie (Bryce Hodgson).
Finding an actor suitably weird and musically gifted would be nearly impossible, but, under the circumstances, the slightly built, shaven-headed Hodgson, does very well in suggesting this hillbilly’s strangeness. Most of the other familiar elements remain, including the rape—so startling in the movie—by one of the mountain men (Hodgson, again) of the overweight Bobby (Jarrod Zayas; Ned Beatty in the movie), and his rescue by the archery skill of his friend Ed (Nick Paglino; Jon Voight on screen).
Tantalo’s inventive approach uses a square acting space designed by Maruti Evans that consists of nothing more than a shiny black floor surrounded on four sides by the audience. A cloth band on which a biblical quote is printed marks the space all around overhead, and the rest is up to Evans’s remarkably varied lighting. From the moment you enter the haze-filled space to the last word spoken, you are in an atmosphere of darkness shot through from every angle with pinpoint cones of light. Scenes shift suddenly via sound effects, lighting and verbal cues.
Ien Denio’s sound design is a crucial player, constantly creating dynamic effects, and invoking—with the help of the lights—powerful images, such as the crashing waves when a canoe capsizes and the men struggle for air. For the most part, there are no props, everything being mimed—oars, a bow and arrows, cigarettes, drinks, rifles and so on. The men’s backpacks are an acceptable exception, but I don’t think the sheriff and his deputy need to pack holstered pistols in the final scene; their authority is clear enough from their clothes and attitudes.
Gregory Konow is fine as the smugly machismo Ed (Burt Reynolds in the movie), Jarrod Zayas is appropriately pathetic as the frightened Bobby, Sean Tant is believable as the reluctant rationalist, Drew, and Nick Paglino as Ed offers the right combination of fear and bravado. Supported by the equally talented ensemble of Hodgson, Eddie Dunn, and Jason Bragg Stanley, covering two or three smaller roles each, this Deliverance delivers the goods.
59 E. 59th Street
Through November 9
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).