In Book-It Repertory Theatre’s current production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” we are treated to four of Carver’s most definitive short stories, played by four actors (two men and two women) and staged with an elegance that is in stark contrast to the troubled lives of these people. Carver was a distinctive and conflicted writer, a lower-class working man with a lifetime problem of alcoholism and a tenuous understanding of what true love between people could, or should, really mean. While this production, adapted and directed by Jane Jones, does an excellent job of creating the worlds and lives of these people, not all of the stories worked, at least for me. The acting is first-rate, the production values excellent and the realization of these literary stories for the live stage is almost always successful, but my major problem was with the original stories, or at least some of them.
The first story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” was, for me, the least successful. A story of two couples, friends, who meet on an afternoon to share casual, if sometimes quite deep, conversation and a large bottle of gin. Mel (Kevin McKeon) is clearly the man of the house and does all he can to keep everyone to their stories, and every glass full. As they begin to talk about love, and what it means, we are delivered to several very disturbing stories in their pasts. Terri (Carol Roscoe) uses the suggestion to talk about love to reveal a previous, abusive relationship with a man who “loved her so much he tried to kill her”. Ultimately, he kills himself, with Terri at his side as he dies in the hospital. That story leads to Mel’s revelation of a terrible incident at the hospital where he works as a physician. An elderly couple is hit by a drunk driver who turns out to be a teenager. The boy dies at the scene. The elderly man is bandaged from head to foot and we discover later, that the cruelest part of his injuries is the fact that he cannot look to the side to see his wife. The uncomfortable couple who are guests on this evening try to end the storytelling so they can all go out to dinner, but Mel insists that no one will leave until the bottle, the second bottle, is empty. Tracy Hyland and Andrew DeRycke were just fine as the visiting couple, and their increasing discomfort with the revelations is largely the engine which propels the story. My biggest problem was that there was just too much alcohol for this encounter to feel like it was really about anything else. I doubt that Carver was really aware of how central drink was to his storytelling, but it was no secret to the rest of us.
The second story, “The Student’s Wife” was more successful, telling the story of a man who realizes how very much of the responsibility for the marriage fell on his wife, and the cost of that for both of them. Unable to sleep, this is really a story about the terrible loneliness of a woman whose husband is never really there. I found it more sad than moving. Although the alcohol was much less central in this story, it didn’t really capture or hold my interest.
After the intermission, “Intimacy” was, in my opinion, the finest and most fully-realized story of the evening. A man returns to the town where his divorced wife lives, and decides he must pay her a visit. He has been sending her newspaper articles about all his successes, but never received any reply. When he shows up at her door, and she won’t even stop vacuuming, it is pretty clear why. She lets him in, and he sits uncomfortably on the couch, while she reveals layer after layer of all that he has cost her, of all the unhealed wounds that still remain, of all the hurt and psychological abuse she suffered during their time together. Kevin McKeon is that visitor, and he walks a fine line between his awareness of all he had done wrong in the past and his blindness toward all of its effects. His former wife, played by Carol Roscoe, was amazing. In this role I felt every moment of their terrible life together, every pain that remained after his leaving, every effort she made and continues to make to put all that misery into some kind of sustainable perspective. When their conversations lead to long periods of silence, we are fully able to fill that silence with all that we can surmise about events untold. This story really felt like a piece of real life, and what they talked about defined love in all its hopes and flaws, all its satisfactions and disappointments. Hands down, the best story of the evening.
Fortunately, it was followed by “Cathedral” a story about a visit from a blind man who has been a longtime friend of Robert’s wife (Tracy Hyland). Robert (Andrew DeRycke) can’t imagine anything he might have in common with “blind man” but over the course of the evening he discovers that there are many ways of seeing the world. Kevin McKeon is excellent as the blind visitor, Hyland makes the wife both decent and lovable (albeit lonely like every woman in these stories) and DeRycke takes us on a journey through his own ignorance to a discovery of how anyone can learn to see the world if they really try from the insides of their being. This was actually quite a lovely story, in quite unexpected circumstances, and the perfect way to end the evening.
The physical production, with scenic design by Burton K. Yuen, Lighting by Tristan Roberson, Sound by Nathan Wade and excellent costumes by Chelsea Cook all combined to give this production an elegant and accurate setting in time and place. Again, I want to emphasize that I was not so much disappointed by the production as by the original material. I think that Carver is very much of a particular time and place, and his own personal demons are likely to lock these stories into the past. Nonetheless, this is a worthy presentation of these deeply personal and quite unsettling stories, and Book-It has once again brought them to vivid life.
PICTURED ABOVE: Andrew DeRycke, Tracy Hyland, Carol Roscoe and Kevin McKeon in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love".
PHOTO BY: John Ulman