We think of ourselves as a forward-looking people, but our holidays are all firmly rooted in the past — specifically, in the sepia-tinted days of our early youth, when the air was cold and suffused with pine, clove, and the smell of baking cookies.
This is true even if you are Truman Capote, and your childhood was miserable and dreary. And because Capote was Capote, he could revitalize, and reanimate, that time for us, and does so for roughly two hours at WSC Avant Bard.
Capote was a depression-era baby who was abandoned by his parents into the hands of eccentric elderly relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, where, as dramaturg Maegan Clearwood helpfully points out, the average annual income was $311. What’s more, Capote was prodigiously intelligent and also — there’s no other way to put it than the way Capote himself did — a sissy, both of which made him the target of choice for his vicious, and hopeless, classmates. They tormented him so badly that he cheered his cold when it turned into croup, so as to extend his absence from school.
Most people would turn such a dreadful childhood into an occasion for psychiatric intervention. Capote turned it into stories — specifically, The Thanksgiving Visitor and A Christmas Memory — and Russell Vandenbroucke adapted the stories into the two-act Holiday Memories.
In these stories, the 7-year-old Capote — here played by Séamus Miller, an adult actor, and called “Buddy” — is given shelter and protection by Miss Sook (Charlotte Akin), a cousin in her late sixties. If Miss Sook were around today we would probably call her developmentally disabled, but Capote simply says that she is childlike. Her judgment is terrible (she feeds the young Capote whiskey, which is particularly poignant given the way he ended up) and the other adults in the house treat her as a child, ordering her about and scolding her.
But she is the only one in the household — maybe the world — who accepts Truman for what he is. When his uncle demands that Truman kill five turkeys for Thanksgiving, in order to toughen him up, Sook slyly arranges for another boy to do the killing and make it look like Truman did it: a crime story turned inside out.
In The Thanksgiving Visitor Miss Sook seizes upon the idea of inviting Buddy’s principal tormentor, Odd Harrison (Devon Ross) to Thanksgiving dinner. The idea is that by showing Buddy a different side of Odd, and Odd a different side of Buddy, the two might be reconciled — or, I guess “conciled” might be a better word. Things do not work out as planned. There is a moral at the end, but it seems hammered on and unconvincing; Capote was better at drawing insights than at drawing morals.
A Christmas Memory is a little more diffuse. Miss Sook is inspired to put together a fruitcake — or, specifically, thirty-one fruitcakes, including one which she will send to President and Mrs. Roosevelt. This launches her and Buddy into a month-long effort to gather the ingredients and put the fruitcake together. This culminates in a journey to the café owned by the terrifying Ha-Ha Jones (Ross), who will sell them a (quite illegal) bottle of whiskey for the unimaginable sum of $2.00. (They had saved this money up by killing flies, at a rate of 25 flies per penny.) This was enough whiskey to soak all 31 fruitcakes, and leave a little left over to give Sook and Buddy a buzz. Capote invokes other memories of Christmas past, and bathes the story in melancholy at the end.
Somewhere in the middle of A Christmas Memory Capote launches into a description of the woods he and Miss Sook trampled through in order to get the Christmas tree with such savory specificity that you might be reminded of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
This points out a particular challenge Vanderbrouke had to face. The best part of these stories is Capote’s wonderfully evocative narratives, but when a story is adapted as a play, narrative is usually the first thing to go. Vanderbrouke solved this problem by creating an adult Capote (Christopher Henley) to observe, comment on, and explain the proceedings. It is a happy choice: we need an adult in the room, and one a little more savvy than the rigid backwoodsmen who occasionally intrude on Buddy and Sook’s world. (To be fair, Capote himself hit on this solution when designing a radio play for A Christmas Memory.)
The adult Capote provides perspective and a little gentle irony to the matters that are life-and-death for young Buddy. In this role Henley is a bit more Noël Coward than Truman Capote, and it seems to be the right note, for it universalizes the story. The Capote Henley portrays is an urbane, sophisticated man with a sense of humor as dry as a ten-to-one martini, and Henley’s superb comic timing makes his portrayal superbly convincing, and thus better than any impersonation.
Miller, too, makes no effort to portray Capote, or what we might imagine Capote to be as a seven-year-old. Instead, he is like what we would be as seven-year-olds, discovering ourselves to be strangers in a strange land: petulant, terrified, hungry for love. We thus understand, through Miller and Henley, that this could have been us, had our circumstances been different.
We know Capote, more or less, and the real endeavor of Holiday Memories is to introduce us to Miss Sook, as seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy but also as seen through our eyes. Miss Sook is a complicated character, full of infectious enthusiasm and at the same time terrified of the adults around her. Her mind is fevered, perhaps ill (“Buddy” was the name of a long-dead childhood companion; we never learn why she hangs the name on young Truman) but she is capable of great joy.
November 25 – December 20, 2015
WSC Avant Bard
at Theatre on the Run
3700 South Four Mile Run Drive
Arlington, VA 22206
1 hour, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: PWYW, $30 and $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
While the adult Capote occasionally points out these contradictions, it is up to the actor playing her to make them real for us. Fortunately, Sook is in the hands of Charlotte Akin, one of the area’s most reliable actors for playing complicated characters. Akin’s Sook is sufficiently nuanced so that we can see in her both what Buddy sees and what Truman, looking back, now understands.
This trio is complemented with excellent work by Ross and Liz Dutton in multiple roles. In addition to Odd and Ha-Ha, the large and powerfully-built Ross plays several authority figures, including Buddy’s hard-bitten uncle. Dutton is, among others, Buddy’s preening 103-year-old aunt, a lissome young pianist who catches Odd Harrison’s eye, and, delightfully, Queenie the Dog.
Director Tom Prewitt has elected a production on the minimalist side, which is probably necessary given the limitations of the Theatre on the Run stage. Though there are times when the show slides into illustrated storytelling, it’s all good. After all, what storytelling! And the moments where Prewitt makes a virtue out of necessity — such as when Henley’s Capote, explaining about the Christmas tree, briefly becomes the Christmas tree — are done with precision and grace.
The other person who made a virtue out of necessity, of course, was Capote himself, who used the virtue of his imagination and writerly skill to transform his catastrophic childhood into a warm and happy place, and by so doing shows us a way to see good in our scary world.
Holiday Memories by Truman Capote, adapted for the stage by Russell Vandenbroucke . Directed by Tom Prewitt . Featuring Christopher Henley, Séamus Miller, Charlotte Akin, Liz Dutton and Devon Ross . Set and lighting design: Colin Dieck . Costume design: Danielle Preston . Sound design: Jeffrey Dorfman . Production manager and technical director: Bill Toscano . Fight choreographer: James Finley . Stage manager: Lindsey Moore . Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Reviewers’ note: Mr. Henley co-directed a play that I wrote in the 2014 DC Fringe Festival, and writes for this publication. Ms. Clearwood covered a Fringe Festival for this publication. None of this affected my review.