With his vibrant new stage adaptation of John Updike’s 1986 novel Roger’s Version Blackbird Theater Artistic Director Wes Driver nimbly walks the tightrope between intellectual rigor and emotional engagement.
Yes, he’s aided by a splendid cast led by David Compton and Kristopher Wente, but it’s an incredible achievement to take Updike’s prose and make it a play. Some passages of the book read (appropriately) like a debate heavily influenced by Updike’s acknowledged esteem for Swiss theologian Karl Barth, but adhering fully to those sections would result in theatrical tedium; in other parts of the novel there are striking descriptions, such as “a sea urchin on the white ocean floor” and “tidbits of rosy marzipan” for intimate anatomical areas, which are stronger for the page than the stage. Driver’s keen dramatic sense has taken Updike’s ideas, personality types and situations and fashioned them into a compelling three-dimensional experience.
And while knowing a little Latin or the work of various theologians and physicists might make certain references more resonant, you don’t have to know that ancient language, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or who Tertullian was to understand and enjoy this show. That’s because the rational conflict that ignites when earnest young grad student Dale Kohler (Wente) comes to smug middle-aged divinity professor Roger Lambert (Compton) with the idea of using computers to prove God’s existence opens the door for some irrational thoughts and behavior. Lambert’s home life – with second wife Esther (Corrie Miller), whose placid exterior barely manages to hide her inner frustrations, and struggling son Richie (Riley Hollingsworth) – is definitely built on shifting sands, and he’s got a rather desperate teen-mother niece named Verna (Amanda Card) who wants more from him than a little cash and help earning her GED.
Kohler’s zeal and Lambert’s complacency continually collide as each futilely seeks to convince the other regarding their respective positions on God and the universe; Lambert essentially sums up their clash when he says to Verna, “…There’s faith and there’s faith, and what we think we believe is really a very minor part of what we do believe.” As in the book, we’re not quite sure what is actually happening and what is part of Lambert’s unquestionably active imagination – but as the title notes we ultimately receive the story through his filter either way.
Every performance sparkles; Compton gives us a flawed central figure every bit as compelling as Brian Webb Russell’s bravura turn as Salieri in Blackbird’s 2013 presentation of Amadeus while Wente is his equal in their scenes together (and also with Miller, who makes her character’s pain quite palpable with even the smallest looks, gestures and vocal inflections). Card crisply plays the angry beats of her character’s fear-driven manipulations while Hollingsworth captures his pre-teen’s awkwardness.
The supporting players are wonderful too; academics played by Richard Daniel, David Chattam, Robyn Berg, Brad Forrister and Lane Wright create humorously recognizable figures without resorting to caricature while John Mauldin deftly handles a very delicate situation as an emergency room doctor.
Andy Bleiler’s tri-level set and David Hardy’s smooth-shifting lights keep Roger’s Version moving easily though the mind and locales in Lambert’s life while costumer Hannah Schmidt has the 1980s look down pat. Yes, all the aforementioned combined their talents to produce an impressive premiere production, but if it’s true it won’t be on the stage when it’s not on the page then once again kudos to Driver for taking the late great Mr. Updike’s print creation and scripting a living story.
Blackbird Theater continues its world premiere of Roger’s Version adapted from John Updike’s novel and directed by Wes Driver through Sunday (June 8). Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday with a Sunday matinee at 2:30 p.m. Performances are in Shamblin Theatre at Lipscomb University (3901 Granny White Pike). Tickets ($20; $15 for students/faculty/seniors) are available online by clicking here. Those in the theater industry (actors, designers, technicians, production team members) can take advantage of a Pay-What-You-Can Performance offer on Wednesday, June 4 by asking at the will call table for a PWYC ticket.
*Photos by John Gentry Photography courtesy Blackbird Theater.