James Dickey’s novel Deliverance was a critical and popular success when it was published in 1970. It won the National Book Award, and was the basis of the equally popular film that was released in 1972. The film helped catapult Burt Reynolds into major stardom, and it launched a big film career for character actors Ned Beatty and Jon Voight. Mr. Dickey wrote his own screenplay, and played the small but key role of the Sheriff. The poetry of the novel, the language used to tell its turgid tale, elevated it from a mere page turner to a much respected work of art.
Its story is a good one. Outdoor fanatic Lewis Medlock, determined to see and experience the Cahulawassee River in Georgia before it is dammed and turned into a huge lake, convinces three skeptical friends to join him for a river trip they will never forget. The three, (Ed, Bobby and Drew) are ill equipped for such a task, and it takes Lewis’ pounding away on how criminal it would be to ignore this opportunity for each of them to stretch, to find rapture in a once-in-a lifetime adventure.The three day canoe trip would take them down a wild section of the river in the heartland of Georgia.
On the morning of the second day, their adventure explodes into a terrifying life threatening struggle for power. It’s a taut tale and as a novel, it transported its readers into foreign and exciting territory. The film was shot in and about authentic Georgia river waters; as a result, the best moments in the film make graphic the vicissitudes of riding rapids, scaling a cliff, shooting a bow and arrow. Encounters with local forest people too are vividly captured on film and are genuinely frightening. On the basic level of “good story, well told”, the novel and the movie were a crowd pleasing success.
It’s somewhat difficult to understand why Sean Tyler, a playwright and playmaker at the Godlight Theatre Company. chose to adapt the novel into a play for the stage, and as produced at 59E59 it suffers by comparison to the source and to the film made from that source.
The 59th Street stage is a small one; the audience sits on all of its four sides, so the acting space is that of a boxing ring, with only three or four rows graded up from the stage. A polished black stage floor, which looks quite glamourous, something a smart dance team might look good on, has to make do as the river, the river bank, the forest, and an Atlanta Bar in an early scene in which Lewis convinces his urban friends to join him on his dangerous trip.
A first rate cast delivers the most important values of the material, but the most effective way to experience a wild canoe ride down an angry river is not to see two men facing each other and miming the arm motions that represent maintaining balance on turbulent waters. Gregory Konow as Lewis has the size, presence and look of a leader. Nick Palino convinces that he would know how to handle a bow and arrow. Jarrod Zayas has the physical attributes to make clear that he’s not at his best in the midst of a jungle, and Sean Tant is effective as the very urban fellow who tries, without success, to bring his liberal values to this hillbilly setting. Bryce Hodgson as the most frightening of their antagonists (he plays the banjo, a rapist and a deputy sheriff,) is startling in all three roles. Good acting helps as it always does, so we are absorbed, but we are never truly involved.
Joe Tantolo, artistic director of the Godlight Theatre Company, has helped the actors make the mime perfectly clear throughout the 85 minutes of playing time. However, considering the tiny space in which they were playing, I found the level of voice projection a bit intimidating, as the actors were often no more than six feet from most of us. This was a consistently “in your face” production from the standpoint of sound. Lighting by Maruti Evans effectively contributed mood and Danny Blackburn’s musical background score heightened the high points and underscored the transitions. Other actors, who doubled as local hill people and the county sheriff and his deputy, also offered telling performances.
But for this particular material, I much preferred both the book and the movie. Anyone interested in the study of a play adapted from a novel would find it interesting, because it’s well done, but on its own as a theatre experience, I don’t think it will stand the test of time. It’s material more suited to media other than the stage.
Deliverance is onstage through November 9, 2014 at 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.