AS I LAY DYING adapted from the William Faulkner novel by Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith (Theatre Smith-Gilmour). At Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). To March 31. Pwyc $35. 416-504-7529. See listings. Rating: NNNN
After years of successfully adapting short stories for the stage, the physical and clown-based troupe Theatre Smith-Gilmour finally take on a novel, with equally powerful results.
It helps that they're working with one of the 20th century's best. William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying chronicles a poor white Southern family's tragicomic odyssey to get their matriarch, Addie (Michele Smith), buried in her childhood hometown, the fictional Jefferson, Mississippi. In chapters narrated by various family members, and a few by other residents of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, the Bundrens battle floods, fire and their private motivations to fulfill Addie's request.
It takes a while to adjust to the play's rhythms and various narrators (not to mention their wavering accents), who include Addie's lazy and miserly husband, Anse (Dean Gilmour), a raft of carefully delineated sons (played by Dan Watson, Julian De Zotti, Benjamin Muir and Daniel Roberts) and teenage daughter Dewey Dell (Nina Gilmour), who's got her own reasons for wanting to get to Jefferson.
But soon the threads intersect and the work opens up. Physicalizing some scenes - like one son's facility with horses or another's carpentry skills (he builds Addie's coffin while she's dying) - helps establish character. And two of the novel's most exciting events - the crossing of a river and the burning of a barn - are brought to life with awe-inspiring economy.
There's a choppiness to some scenes that could have been solved by staging a couple of sections simultaneously. And I wish sections about Addie and Anse's courtship hadn't been edited out.
But this is first-rate storytelling theatre, built of the simplest elements and delivering maximum effect. Most of the sounds are made by the actors, while others - a Purcell aria, some honky-tonk music - add ambience and provide context.
The ensemble is fine, but particular mention should go to Dean Gilmour, who makes his unlikeable Anse an all-too-human sympathetic figure, De Zotti, whose character's descent into madness is chilling, and Muir's Jewel, whose physicality is astonishing.
And besides playing the youngest Bundren with childlike wonder, Roberts shows great skill as a farmer who knows Anse's flaws but still wants to be charitable.