Sons and Lovers is faithful, but not thrilling | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Sons and Lovers is faithful, but not thrilling 

D.H. Lawrence's portrait of mother love misses the mark in this On the Spot adaptation.

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click to enlarge Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers

Lisa Lennington

There is a distinction to be drawn between adaptation and dramatization. Dramatizations are lovely. They are almost as nice as reading the book yourself. Audiences ideally come away from a dramatization with a sense of accomplishment at having sat all the way through most of the famous scenes in an important literary classic, all without dozing off more than a handful of times. Adaptation is a different can of beans. It ought to require just as much ingenuity, moral acumen, and sleight of hand to retool fictional characters for stage presentation as it took for the author to fashion them. Cutting a play together from a novel's plot isn't just a question of stuffing as much of it as you can into a reasonable theatrical run time, either. In order to merit the name of an adaptation, the show will need to remember to aspire, first and above all, to be worth its salt as an original play.

And so, have playwright Mike Brayndick and On the Spot Theatre Company produced a handy-dandy dramatization of D. H. Lawrence's third novel, or is this truly an adaptation? All signs point to the former. Little that's been added to Lawrence's story under the sign of Brayndick (who also directs) does it any good. Mr. and Mrs. Morel begin and end their glum lives together in the same Nottinghamshire coal town as in the book. Mrs. Morel bears Walter the same sons, Paul and William, who grow up to hate their father and are forever incapable of love for any woman but her. The character of Lawrence himself (Brian Boller) has been roped in as a narrator, and the mother's first name has been changed in the play from Gertrude to Lydia, Lawrence's own mother's name. These were both mistakes. Plus, the autobiographical overlay of the narrator becomes worse than useless as soon as Boller doffs his narrator cap to double as, not Paul, who is the novel's real autobiographical stand-in for Lawrence, but William.

So much for the additions. However, there are a few discerning omissions that inch this production nearer to adaptation territory. I admire what Baird Brutscher does in the role of Edgar Leivers. He plays him as a real roughneck with a foul mouth who would think nothing of punching you for dragging his sister's heart through the sod, as he does to Paul (Miles Borchard). Edgar's eruptions are also characteristic of Walter Morel, Paul and William's father, in the book, but Edgar is made more striking here by contrast because Stephen Dunn acts out Walter as a gentler sort of person. Hurt predominates in his makeup over the instinct toward violence. One of the scariest scenes in Sons and Lovers is when Walter hurls a drawer full of knives at Gertrude while she holds baby Paul. Here, we see only Walter's fumbling effort to dress Lydia's head wound following the incident. Change Walter from a drunken lunatic into this thwarted brute, and you get perhaps a more compelling, more modern version of him than a straightforward read would have given you.

Other omissions or tonings down of the source feel less deliberate. At the gravitational center of the family is Lydia, played by Amy Gray. An elegant, refined lady from a good family, the tragedy of her life was to marry a functionally illiterate coal miner for love and go sour with age, passing on to her children an ineradicable sense of being always too good for their surroundings. We get in Gray the superb condescension of a woman who refuses to simply be married to a collier and die happy, but the warmth that endears her sons to her so ferociously all their lives is missing. The novelistic Gertrude is generous, an idealist, full of life, disdainful of Walter but capable of pity and tenderness towards him too. It could be that the scenes plucked from the book don't show her in this light enough. But there is such a thing as not rising to the text's occasion. Sadly, this Lydia retains so little of Gertrude's innate warmth that she ends up feeling like less of a conscious revamp of the character along new lines than a walking, talking failure of imagination.

If what the viewer wants from this production is a Reader's Digest-style overview of the Lawrence novel, and they're willing to sit through two hours and 15 minutes of fake British accents to get it, more power to them. Those looking for depth of character, imaginative insight, and daringly brilliant adaptation will have to keep the search up.  v

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