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That Eric Rosen's adaptation of the superb Jim Grimsley novel Dream Boy, the current StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance production at Swain Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, can only approximate the beauty and power of its source is unsurprising.
Although Grimsley is himself a playwright of extraordinary range, his work as a novelist is largely internal. His dialogue is minimal, his descriptive narration complex and poetic, lyrical in a way perhaps only prose can support. It's intensely dramatic on the page. In the case of Dream Boy as theater, there are added problems: the book's descriptions of sex, and its profoundly ambiguous denouement.
The narrative, in both novel and play, is compelling, timely, and of great personal interest to this writer. Nathan, a troubled youth of 16, falls in love with Roy, the farm boy next door. Nathan bears the sexual and emotional scars of paternal abuse, which he keeps to himself; Roy is terrified that his and Nathan's budding love affair will become public to the God-fearing rural North Carolina town in which they abide. It is the 1970s, and, as Grimsley observes, "Boys aren't supposed to do that down South." Especially then. Our particulars are vastly different, but the fear and furtiveness in the boys' relationship resonates with my own experience.
The religious fervor surrounding these two seeps into every act. So, it's not surprising that, in the midst of their first erotic encounter, Roy begins to sing a hymn ("There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God"), or that Nathan joins in. For these boys, sex is not merely pleasure but a kind of covenant, an expression of the inexpressible: love as a sacramental offering — the profane made sacred. How can this be made to work on a stage?
The short answer is, it can't. The moment cited above is an act of fellatio, and it can only be hinted at. This is where theatre ends and literature begins, as when Nathan allows Roy to penetrate him, or as the bully Burke, in a final act of misdirected self-hatred, rapes Nathan in the pitch-dark of a haunted plantation house. (It's a moment, to Nathan, that seems to affirm his own existence as a mere vessel for the rage and inexplicable perversion of his father, of Burke, and even, perhaps, of Roy himself.) Because they cannot be shown in anything like a cinematic verity, these acts will be fully comprehensible only to those in the audience who've read the novel.
Then there is the question of Nathan's ultimate being. Has he, somehow, survived Burke's murderous attack, been resurrected, or is he in fact a spirit? I lean toward the latter belief, because the notion of an after-life pervades the novel: from the Indian mound the on which the boys first consummate their love and the graveyard to which Nathan retreats from his abusive father, to the ghost stories told around a campfire and the haunted house whose terrible apparitions are not all of another world. Dream Boy, as its title suggests, is in its own way a ghost story, shot through with the Old South piety its author can reject but never wholly escape.
Rosen's adaptation, like Joseph Megel's direction and the scenic design of Rob Hamilton, is at its best when, like the novel, its tone is fluid and elliptical: when trap-doors are raised to create campfires or a railway trellis, wooden slats become a trestle or the doors of a haunted mansion, and a set of benches are turned on end to represent tomb stones. More often, the lines Rosen takes from Grimsley's book either describe what we're seeing (redundant) or do not completely represent what's happening (confusing). When Burke threatens to push Nathan from the top of the trestle and Nathan imagines the fall as a kind of crucifixion, the action of this divided moment isn't staged clearly enough to sustain the metaphor. When a secondary figure intrudes on an action, joining his voice to that of a character in the scene, the effect is muddy. And Burke's final blow to Nathan is clumsily staged.
The best moments in Dream Boy belong to its actors, particularly Elisabeth Lewis Corley, who plays Nathan's impotent and acquiescent mother with a barely suppressed agitation that is exquisitely moving. With her, a simple statement ("I like this house") somehow expresses all the truths she cannot bring herself to state, or admit. Later, Corley creates a heart-breaking moment when she moves her hand tentatively toward Nathan, stops in mid-air, and quickly brings it back to hug her own arm. The futility inherent in that gesture is devastating.
Scarcely less effective is Annissa Clarke as Roy's mother. Despite a certain, jovial, small-mindedness, Clarke exudes tremendous warmth and becomes more Nathan's mother than his own is able to be. Wade Ferguson Dansby 3 exactly captures the barely-compressed anxiety of Roy's gentle friend Randy, and Chris Chiron — despite being too young to be as dissipated as Nathan describes him — is properly disquieting as Nathan's father, less a threat in what he does than for what he might do.
Blake Bradford is less successful as Burke, for two reasons. First, the role is so attenuated in this stage adaptation that we don't comprehend what lies beneath the surface of his menace. In Grimsley's novel, it's clear that Burke's suspicions about Nathan and Roy stem from the threat they imply to himself: to something he won't, or can't, own up to in his own nature. In the play, he's a conventional bully. Second, the actor portraying Burke should be firmer and more muscled, so that when he takes off his shirt the action represents an explicit dare to Nathan.
Vince Eisenson is the perfect dream of Roy, his essential kindness, easy physicality, and innate intelligence at war with the terror love unearths in him. Alex Bonner's Nathan is more problematic. Physically, the boys seem to be cast opposite of their types: Roy, the elder, is slight of stature while Nathan, the younger, is large, almost moronic in his timidity. When merely smiling shyly at Roy, Bonner is immensely appealing. More often, however, Bonner plays Nathan with eyes nearly always cast down, constantly trying to make himself seem smaller by bunching his shoulders and bowing himself inward, and he is occasionally inaudible. His performance may be a potent depiction of an abused adolescent, but it also causes us to wonder exactly what Roy sees in him that would compel this boy to flirt with disaster in loving him so much.
The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Communication Studies, presents Dream Boy Thursday-Saturday, April 3-5 and 10-12, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 6 and 13, at 2 p.m. in Swain Hall Studio 6 Theatre at UNC-Chapel Hill. $14 Friday-Saturday, $12 Thursdays/Sunday, with student rush, senior discounts, and group rates available. 919/843-3865. http://www.streetsigns.org/, http://literati.net/Grimsley/, and http://www.emory.edu/COLLEGE/CREATIVEWRITING/faculty/grimsley.html [inactive 10/04].