Although it operates on a shoestring budget, Chapel Hill-based Wordshed Productions is one of the most imaginative and resourceful theater companies in the Triangle. Its latest world-premiere production — A Paradise It Seems: The Short Stories of John Cheever, adapted and directed by Matthew Spangler — opens tonight in Studio 6 in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The three stories dramatized by Wordshed's founding artistic director are "The Enormous Radio," "The Five-Forty-Eight," and "The Swimmer." A doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UNC, Spangler says "The Swimmer" will provide the narrative frame for A Paradise It Seems and the three male actors in the cast — Wordshed company members Chris Chiron and Matthew Spangler and esteemed Triangle theater veteran Jordan Smith — will take turns playing the story's protagonist, Neddy Merrill, who whimsically decides to "swim" home from a Sunday afternoon pool party by swimming from backyard pool to backyard pool, across the neighborhood.
The cast also includes Wordshed company members Sarah Kocz and Hannah Blevins and highly talented local actress Katja Hill.
The late, great American novelist and short-story writer John Cheever (1912-82) skillfully employed fantasy, satire, and a finely honed sense of irony in his wonderfully witty writings about the mores of middle-class suburban life in the last half of the 20th century. Famously dubbed "the Chekhov of the suburbs" for his skill at using seemingly minor and insignificant events to reveal the underlying drama and sadness of his characters, Cheever was a moralist who always judged his fictional creations by how well they measured up to the standards of traditional morality.
"Cheever's stories have always meant a lot to me," admits Matt Spangler. "There is a strong element of magical realism about his stories, but they are set in a location where we don't expect to find magical realism — the American suburbs. Cheever goes beneath the surface of mundane middle-class existence to reveal the strange and, I think, deeply human interior of his characters."
Spangler says, "Cheever's characters try to project a façade of normalcy, and even ordinary perfection; but they are, in fact, passionately idiosyncratic. Often their idiosyncrasies make them deeply unhappy. They feel trapped in a middle-class suburban veneer that they themselves help to perpetuate.
"The things that make them different from their friends and neighbors," Spangler explains, "are hidden, locked away, and never talked about. It's true that Cheever's characters are generally unhappy, and that these are often sad stories, but there is also lot of humor in them, too. I think the stories also contain a resounding note of hope in the characters' celebration of individuality and their desperate search for a way to break the confinements of middle-class expectations."
In describing the three John Cheever stories that he chose to adapt for this production, Spangler says, "In 'The Enormous Radio,' a married couple buys a new radio. The unique thing about the new instrument is that it picks up conversations in other peoples' homes. The couple listens to the private interactions of their neighbors. As the interactions that the radio picks up become increasingly sordid and even violent, the wife looses her faith in the moral perfection of suburban life.
"In 'The Five-Forty-Eight,'" Spangler explains, "a businessman has had an affair with his secretary. After sleeping with her, he fires her. A few weeks later, she follows him onto the suburban train (the five-forty-eight) and threatens to shoot him with a pistol. In the process, he comes to realize the mundane superficiality of his own life."
Matt Spangler adds, "'The Swimmer" opens with a Sunday afternoon pool party. The story's protagonist, Neddy Merrill, figures out that he can swim across the neighborhood, going from pool to pool all the way home. As he does so, the weather becomes colder, leaves start to change, and the people he encounters become increasingly less kind. When he arrives home, he sees that his house is empty, and has been so for a long time. The reader then realizes that the entire day has been a fabrication in his mind, that he and his wife divorced some time ago, and sold the house. The story shows the desperate attempt of a man to get back into the suburban paradise that he lost.
"In the [current Wordshed stage] adaptation," Matt Spangler says, "'The Swimmer' is broken up to encompass the entire evening. As Neddy swims across the neighborhood, the other two stories will be told. All three male actors will play Neddy at different times in the production, so that he physically becomes older and frailer throughout the performance."
Besides director Matthew Spangler, who doubles as lighting designer and co-sound designer, the show's production team includes set designer Rob Hamilton and co-sound designer Adam Pruitt.
"This is the most ambitious adaptation I've ever put together," Spangler claims. "Deciding where to break 'The Swimmer' to insert the other two stories was a great challenge. Moreover, deciding how to cast the show so that each of the male actors could play Neddy was a terrific challenge. I've also changed the characters' names so that the three stories continually refer to each other."
Wordshed Productions presents A Paradise It Seems: The Short Stories of John Cheever Thursday-Saturday, May 22-24 and 29-31, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 25 and June 1, at 2 p.m. in Studio 6 in Swain Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. $10 ($5 students and $8 seniors). 919/969-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/welcome.html.