Lingering dream voices11/25/2015
With no more than a shift in his tone, John Robinson could change the direction of the show. At a late rehearsal for “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” he kept switching vocal registers. For a fight scene (his character always comes out the loser), he’d crank up the intensity, and two minutes later he’d sound like a comedian (his Dixie breakfasts include “fried squirrel, in season”).
Best of all, he caught the poignancy when the author, Truman Capote, turned reflective: “My mind wandered through a maze as melancholy as the wet twilight.”
These adjustments went along with changes in position. Different spaces called for different voices, on an in-the-round set. The designer, Jay Jaglim, has created a Depression-era farmhouse, its centerpiece a battered family table, laden with a full dinner setup. Yet for Robison, one end of the stage was a schoolyard, where his character,“Buddy,” got into hopeless dust-ups. In another corner, it was the barn, or even the pasture beyond.
“We broke things down into sections,” says Director Ethan Peterson.
This didn’t just go for the set but also for Capote’s material. “The Thanksgiving Visitor” remains a short story, not a script, and the Des Moines staging may be the first anywhere. A television version aired in 1967, but neither RTI’s director nor his lone player turned up any earlier theatrical versions. Thus, this slice of the author’s Alabama upbringing challenged the creative crew to identify both periods of building action and what Peterson calls “the moments of stillness.” Around each they created the sections — like scenes in a play —and began their work with these.
Whether working with a shorter passage or the whole hour-plus reminiscence, Robinson had to put himself through a form of time travel.
“I’m always jumping back and forth between Buddy the child and Buddy the storyteller,” he says,
Narrating the whole, after all, is the adult Capote. At the time of composition, he was at the height of his powers, not yet ravaged by the emotional toll of “In Cold Blood.” “Visitor” was conceived as a rich social portrait with a good dozen characters, many the same as in the earlier, more famous “Christmas Memory.” All these people speak, as the tale unfolds, and one is young Buddy’s worst enemy, another his best friend. Onstage, Robinson has to embody them all — and their interactions — while also somehow keeping the focus on the older author and what the recollection means to him.
It is tremendous challenge, but clearly one the actor relishes. In an interview Robinson slips into the drawl of one character, and then, dropping his grin, clarifies that he can’t make anyone sound “caricaturish.”
Cartoon figures, Robinson understands, belong in a simpler story. This one sets a more serious challenge for the holidays, an impossible dream given voice toward the story’s end: “We really all of us ought to have everything we want.”
Overheard in the Lobby: Dec. 10-13, at Hoyt Sherman, Ballet Des Moines presents Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.