BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Everything That Rises Must Converge
Rereading this post-desegregation story about a woman in whom racial bigotry is as ingrained as her Southern graciousness reinforced my admiration for this master stylist. Her descriptions evoke technicolor images. The immediacy with which she establishes her characters is stunning, as is the way she marshals sympathy for Mrs. Chestny while showing the liberal, put-upon son to be her story's true destructive force. Unfortunately reading an O'Connor story remains a richer experience than seeing it staged, especially within the confines of her estate administrators' rules.
O'Connor was one of our most potent Twentieth Century Southern writers. Her strong Catholic belief, deepened by the illness which led to her tragically early death, is evident in her reoccurring theme of being saved by grace. Her stories are dark and gothic, more Faulkner than Welty. She was tough on her characters, using her x-ray vision to expose their complacency, and often some sort of violence to shock them out of it. It takes some doing to find a loving, happy relationship in an O'Connor story yet there are passages that are as awash with humor as with gorgeous similes and religious symbolism.
"Everything That Rises Must Converge", as well as "A View of the Woods" and "Greenleaf " which make up this two-and-a-half-hour triptych, contain all of O'Connor's hallmarks of symbolism, humor and characters who are quite suddenly catapulted out of their complacent attitudes.
Since no dramatic adaptation of the writer's work have ever been sanctioned, this triptych represents something of a coup for Karen Coonrod. Clearly the people in charge of the estate trusted her to treat the work with respect. Coonrod has honored the trust placed in her by presenting each story in its entirety. Instead of cutting, and pasting and doing the things adapters do to translate a work of fiction from page to stage, she has confined herself to the framework of a reading, relying on her actors -- with an assist from the design team -- to actually become the characters and thus transform a staged reading into a real theater piece.
Ms. Coonrod has indeed gotten all those words on stage -- including the "he saids" and "she saids" -- but with all the movement and stage business of a regular play. The eight member ensemble rises magnificently to the challenge of reading and acting out the stories, a sort of Southern Greek chorus. The stories per se are strong and work well together.
"A View of the Woods" focuses on the relationship of a young girl and her grandfather turns from loving to tragic when she tries to stop him from selling the land needed by her abusive father for his cattle and for the view of the woods. Kel Rae Powell warrants special mention as the pale, spooky little girl. The woods in this story are similar in their symbolic significance as the woods in "Greenleaf" in which the major conflict is between the self-righteous Mrs. May and her handyman, Mr. Greenleaf, whose attitude towards the bull she wants to keep from breaking into her property. In the title and last story both of the main characters are jolted out of their smug mindsets and the comedy prevailing throughout again proves to be a prelude to tragedy..
The problem with all of this is that each story is more than a staged reading but remains less than a real play. The readers-as-character story telling works best in the initial offering, "A View of the Woods" but overall, sticking to the total text turns out to be too weighty. This might have been resolved by eliminating one story, but what defeats the intent of the evening is that Ms. Coonrod has relied on bringing drama to the unedited texts by emphasizing the comic and colorful aspects of her readers-as-characters-Greek chorus format. By making some of the symbols concrete, she has inevitably watered down their impact.
The problem with the methodology is most egregiously evident in "Everything That Rises Must Converge " which I expected to be the highlight of the collection. The new hat that Mrs. Chestny wears on the bus ride to her exercise class at the "Y" is one of O'Connor's most masterful metaphors, in this case as a symbol of the conflict between her and her son.. That hat, with its garish colors and shape, is another object with which she defines her status in a society he wants her to recognize as gone. Memorably described by O'Connor as something that "looked like a cushion with the stuffing out" it somehow becomes just a silly stage prop when actually seen.
Worse still, the passengers are no longer made vivid through the writer's words but made concrete participants in a sort of carnival that overwhelms our imagination. The momentum of the black woman who wears an identical hat to Mrs. Chesney's is diminished by having that hat a gimmicky prop that is hung on a wire and lowered from the ceiling. Ms. Coonrod may not have adapted the stories in the sense of altering the text, but this treatment subverts the power of the words just the same.
Despite my disappointment in this reading-performance piece, I'm glad I saw it and look forward to a new play about rather than by O'Connor which is also being presented by New York Theatre Workshop. The advance press release describes Finally Flannery as being about one woman's a quest for self-discovery. This journey takes her from a smoky telemarketing cubicle to a press junket for Pat Conroy (author of Prince of Tides and other best-selling novels) to Milledgeville, Georgia, where she finds purpose and inspiration in the life and writings of Flannery O'Connor. It stars the author, Barbara Suter and the excellent Nancy Robinette. For details, see the end of the production notes below.
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.