William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying is a complex work of fiction. Part tragi-comedy, part scathing critique of American society, and a large part philosophy, the story is told in 59 chapters through no less than 15 characters, mostly through internal monologue. I consider myself a fairly open-minded person, but if you were to tell me that you wanted to stage this as a play told through mostly physical actions, I would likely send you to the nearest doctor. Therefore, it was with trepidation that I sat to watch Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s adaptation, Take Me Back to Jefferson. Luckily for me, I was in for a very pleasant surprise. While not flawless, the production grapples masterfully with the source material and shows an understanding of its own medium and strength that could enrich the story that is rare to see.
As the play begins, Addie Bunden (Michele Smith) lays dying in her bedroom on the family farm in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Her carpenter son, Cash (Dan Watson), nosily building her coffin in the near vicinity. When she dies, the entire family – daughter Dewy Dell (Nina Gilmour); sons Cash, Darl (Julian de Zotti), and Jewel (Ben Muir); and husband Anse (Dean Gilmour) – set out in the family wagon to honour her death wish, to be buried in her home town of Jefferson. The family is confronted with almost every piece of bad luck possible on the nine-day journey, but they persevere, some out of a duty to their mother, but most for their own, not so considerate reasons.
Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour’s stage adaptation doesn’t aim to capture all the nuances of character and viewpoint of the novel. Instead, the directors use light and movement to intersperse the narrative flow of the story with characters’ thoughts, often in the midst of each other. The two directors thus manage to give a sense of the original work’s clarity within chaos and the audience is given glimpses into the character’s perspectives, while still maintaining an understanding of plot. Smith and Gilmour also infuse the entire production with a sense of balance. The pace goes from maddeningly frantic to elegantly flowing and high-speed action flows into slow motion, at times almost seamlessly. The use of sound effects, all voiced by the actors, add context to the action.
While the pacing is excellent, the production nevertheless had a feel of running through the story at times, as if it was trying to show as much as possible. As a result, some important moments got lost in the jumble, which is dangerous for a character study masking as a story. So much of a character’s development comes down to a half second movement or look, but with so much going on, it was very hard to keep up.
The actors are well cast and portray most of the characters’ intricacies. Ben Muir is a standout as Jewel, the wildest of the sons. His role is almost entirely without words, but Muir transforms his physicality into a powerful language. He’s captivating on stage, sometimes coming off almost animal-like in his leaps and jarred, barely restrained movements. Dean Gilmour’s Anse, the miserly patriarch, fervently clings to good Christian piety, but Gilmour plays him with a certain something unsavoury and hypocritical bubbling below the surface. Julian De Zotti makes for a convincing Darl, though it would have been nice to see him complicate and add a more gradual development to one of the most symbolic and therefore layered characters. Michele Smith doesn’t have much to say as Addie, but what she does say is hauntingly eerie.
André Du Toit’s lighting design is absolutely breathtaking. With just light, he manages to transform a bare stage into a hazy Southern summer day, rushing water, and, most impressive of all, pure emotion. He plays with our imagination, propping up the directing and acting, creating an atmosphere out of thin air.
Take Me Back to Jefferson is a highly enjoyable piece of theatre that will challenge you. Although it could be trimmed down in length and the pacing could be adjusted in some places, it is nevertheless a triumph to touch on the themes and contradictions of a text that most would say is lunacy to even attempt to put on stage. Well done!
Take Me Back to Jefferson
Adapted by Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour
Based on As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
A Theatre Smith-Gilmour Production (Toronto) at the NAC Theatre
Co-directors: Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour
Set and costumes: Teresa Przybylski
Lighting: André Du Toit
Darl, Samson……………………………………….Julian de Zotti
Anse, Moseley, Rev. Whitfield, Quick…………….Dean Gilmour
Dewy Dell, Little John, Lula……………………….Nina Gilmour
Jewel, Peabody, the Marshall………………………Ben Muir
Vardaman, Armstid…………………………………Daniel Roberts
Cash, Tull, Gillespie, MacGowan…………………..Dan Watson
Take Me Back to Jefferson continues at the NAC Theatre to April 11.