Carson McCullers’s 1940 novel “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is a masterful Southern gothic that explores the lives of a unique set of outcasts who turn to one individual who will listen to their hopes and heartaches — a deaf man named John Singer.
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre will debut its 2017-18 season with the stage adaption of McCullers’ novel with casting that director John Miller-Stephany believes will provide audiences a more empathetic window into the lives of its characters: deaf actors will perform the roles of the play’s two deaf characters.
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New York-based actors Christopher Tester and J.W. Guido have been cast, Tester as Singer and Guido as Singer’s friend, Spiros Antonapoulos. Advertising for the production makes the point that the hearing world misunderstands the deaf world: It shows Singer holding up a card that says, “I am deaf but I read lips and understand what is said to me. Please do not shout.”
Tester, of New York, who is an American Sign Language interpreter as well as an actor, said the Singer role offers an empowered depiction of deafness.
“Most people see deafness as ‘poor deaf guy, poor deaf person who can’t talk, who can’t hear, who can’t, can’t, can’t function in the world,’ ” Tester said. “John Singer is very independent, he has a very good job, he makes good money, and he gives money to the other characters. … And all of these other characters come to rely on John Singer financially, emotionally.”
With the recent violence in Charlottesville spurred by a white nationalist protest, Miller-Stephany believes the production offers an urgent theme.
“It seems to me right now that there is a great deal of focus on demonizing the other,” Miller-Stephany says. “Whether the other is an immigrant, whether the other is someone who belongs to a different religion, whether the other is someone who does not belong to your political party. … [It] is profoundly unhealthy for society, and this particular play tells the story of a group of people who are marginalized for one reason or another.”
The play, adapted for the stage by Rebecca Gilman and Miller-Stephany’s debut production, takes place in a Depression-era mill town in rural Georgia. It opens with a brief focus on the friendship between Singer and Antonapoulos, who have served as each other’s sole companions for many years. When Antonapoulos is sent to a distant insane asylum, Singer is forced into self-reliance.
Singer acquaints himself with four different individuals in his community: Biff Brannon, a recently widowed owner of a cafe where the protagonist frequently dines; Jake Blount, an alcoholic laborer activist and socialist; Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a frustrated yet optimistic black physician; and Mick Kelly, a rebellious teenager who dreams of escaping poverty to become a professional musician one day. Singer becomes an anchor for each of these personalities through his willingness to empathize with their perspectives and in offering companionship through intimate moments of kindness and support. Through Singer, the characters break out of their solitary existences and find a human savior.
The paradox, however, is that Singer, separated from his dear friend Antonapoulos, feels equally uncertain about his future without the one confidant who could truly understand his life as a deaf individual.
McCullers, who wrote many works that shined a light on oppressed voices in Southern communities, achieved literary sensation upon publishing “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” her first novel, at age 23.
The play’s investigation into political and cultural divisions, as well as its depiction of both the solitary and interconnected nature of human relationships, may resonate with the audience. But “The Heart” is far from heart-warming, nor does it offer any roadmap to reconciling conflicts. But that, Miller-Stephany said, is what makes it an “elevating” piece of art.
“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” runs Wednesdays through Sundays through Sept. 10. Curtain is 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; there will be additional 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays. Tickets are $75. Complimentary beer from Lost Forty will be served at Beer Night with Lost Forty and the Arkansas Times at 6 p.m. before the Aug. 24 preview.
Performances on Aug. 25, Aug. 30, Sept. 1, Sept. 6, Sept. 7 and Sept. 10 will be ASL intepreted. A three-course meal is set for 6 p.m. Aug. 25, opening night, at The Rep Secondstage at 601 Main St.; tickets are $75. A champagne reception follows. Performance tickets range from $15 for students (an hour before curtain) to $48. To purchase, go to therep.org or call the box office at 501-378-0405.