by Loren Noveck · October 21, 2014
James Dickey’s Deliverance, adapted by Sean Tyler from Dickey’s 1970 novel (also famously adapted into a 1972 film) is an intensely masculine story about the conflict between two different models of American manhood (“soft” suburban professionals and harder-living, poorer mountain men) as well as the more elemental battle of Man versus Nature. There are wives and sisters mentioned, relevant figures in the men’s lives but not in the play: the play is about what happens in an abstract, vicious, elemental world that seems to contain nothing but men, nature, weapons, and the bare exercise of power. The piece is unflinchingly violent (with scenes that include assault, rape, shootings), packed with sweeping outdoor action sequences (whitewater rafting, bow-and-arrow hunting, rock-climbing), and set primarily in the deep and untamed woods.
All of which means that it seems like an impossible task to stage in a tiny, intimate space, in the round, with virtually no set, no props, and no ability to portray visually the epic natural forces set against the central characters. It shouldn’t work, at all--and even when it does, I am not the natural target audience for this story--but yet somehow, director Joe Tantalo and a sevenactor ensemble make it gripping and often truly shocking, with its few false notes coming in the portrayals of the rural characters.
The basic story is simple: Four middle-aged “city slickers”--Lewis, Bobby, Drew, and Ed; ordinary middle-class professionals, with families and ordinary lives--set out for a weekend canoe trip in the Georgia backwoods; the river they’re traveling is about to be dammed, flooding the area, so this is the last chance to see this particular part of the natural world. But from their arrival in the town of Oree, their setting-off point, where they try to hire men to drive their cars downriver to be picked up at the end of the trip, their encounters with various locals (all of them small-town or rural Southerners of a type completely unfamiliar to most of the foursome), have a sinister tinge. (The trip’s instigator, Lewis, claims to have spent some time with “mountain men,” but his stories have the ring of polished anecdote rather than real experience, and although his hunting and canoeing skills are stronger than the others’, he’s still a dilettante compared to the locals, who don’t take him any more seriously than they do his friends.) Of the mechanics, mentally disabled banjo-players, deep-woods hunters, small-town sheriffs they meet along the trip, almost every man--and they are all men--warns the foursome off their planned journey, by word and by deed, but the four will not be dissuaded.
So it’s not really a surprise when this “adventure of a lifetime” starts to go sickeningly wrong. True, the first day’s canoeing is hard, but rewarding, and Ed comes close to taking down a buck on an early-morning walk through foggy woods. But on the second day, Lewis, with Drew in his canoe, leaves the main river to explore a side creek. Once the two canoes are separated, Ed and Bobby, stopping for a breather, run into some seriously scary guys, who assault them in horrifying ways. Lewis rescues them with another act of violence, and things only go downhill further from there. Day three is the worst yet, as the stakes get higher, and their chances to escape with their lives get slimmer.
And remember, all of this is being done in a tiny space, in the round, with no room to dramatize any of this action with elaborate fight choreography or scenery. Still, the piece is intensely suspenseful, sometimes crazily tense. Some of this comes from the sheer proximity--actors and audience forced into these cramped confines, forced to look one another in the eye as bows are drawn and rape is committed. (One of the play’s most powerful moments, in fact, a rape scene that’s the most-remembered sequence in the film, is given its emotional heft here by placing one tight-focused light on the face of the friend forced to watch it.) Some of the power comes from strong performances among the central fourcome (especially Nick Paglino’s Ed and Jarrod Zayas’s Bobby, one of them finding a fraught and tensile, edgy strength in desperate straits, the other pushed past his breaking point). Some of the energy also comes from the shift in power midway through the piece, which seems at first like it’s going to showcase Lewis’s leadership but turns out to be more about Ed’s journey to a terrible extremity.
The character portrayals--both writing and acting--are less strong among the minor roles: the mountain men and the law enforcement officers in the rural area. This does serve to keep attention on the central foursome, but at the cost of making their antagonists feel a bit like straw men, and the rural world a little thinner than it could be.
I’m not sure, still, Deliverance needed to be a play--but if it’s going to be, this intimate, sharply focused, suspenseful adaption may be counterintuitive, but it’s surprisingly successful.