AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner, adapted by Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour with the company, directed by Smith and Gilmour, with Daniel Roberts, Julian De Zotti, Dan Watson, Ben Muir, Nina Gilmour, Smith and Gilmour. Presented by Theatre Smith-Gilmour at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). Previews begin Friday (March 8), opens Wednesday (March 13) and runs to March 31, Tuesday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinee Saturday and March 31 at 2:30 pm. $15-$30, matinees pwyc. 416-504-7529. See listings.
When Nina Gilmour first read William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying in preparation for a Theatre Smith-Gilmour adaptation, she admits she didn't understand it at all.
The seminal 20th century novel follows the Bundren family on a 40-mile funeral procession to bury matriarch Addie in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. Narrated from different viewpoints by 15 people, its timeline and stream-of-consciousness style make it challenging.
"Then one day I decided to read it in the characters' dialect, and it all started to come together," remembers Gilmour. "Given the improvisatory nature by which we create a show, having a grasp on the source material is central."
Run by Gilmour's parents, Michele and Dean, Theatre Smith-Gilmour has successfully mined the prose of Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, the Grimms and Chinese writer Lu Xun for its stage works. The shows have a strong physicality, a dramatic charm and deep-felt humanity.
Faulkner's novel constitutes a more substantial, intricate source than the company's earlier pieces. Anse Bundren and Addie have five children, all richly drawn, and the subsidiary figures are often as strong. There's a grotesque humour, too, despite the novel's frequent moments of tragedy.
"We start improvising the various chapters, then sculpt the results," explains the actor. "The directors, though they're performing as well, are the outside eyes for what works. The challenge is to move the narrative forward and allow the audience to follow its course."
In addition to several minor characters, Gilmour plays Dewey Dell, the sole Bundren daughter.
"She's still a child at 17, and she has a big secret that's going to change her life. She has her own agenda for travelling to Jefferson, one known only by her brother Darl, who seems to know her inner thoughts instinctively. The enormity of the secret she carries means she can't really mourn her mother's death.
"What's central about Dewey Dell is that though she's a young farm girl living in extreme poverty, she's tough as nails. Growing up with four brothers and a demanding father who puts himself ahead of his family, she can sometimes be as naive as a bunny in the headlights, but she's forced to become strong and hardheaded.
"That's the challenge for me - to find the balance on Dewey Dell's journey, to keep the child and also show the mature woman."
An impressive workshop last April laid the groundwork for the full production, but Gilmour appreciates the chance to look at the play with new eyes.
"We're adding a few scenes, but the major task this time is to clarify the story and characters without losing the rhythms that worked so well in the workshop."
A student of French master clown Philippe Gaulier, like her parents, Gilmour makes storytelling central to her work.
"As either an actor or an audience member, I love the magic that theatre can create. It's like being a kid again, having a sense of wonder and delight."