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A Firm Grip on Life

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Faulkner's Bicycle

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

at the Chicago Cultural Center

By Kelly Kleiman

Faulkner's Bicycle is a play about all the means people use to escape their lives, and about the ways in which those means inevitably fail. Though that sounds frustrating and painful, and indeed constraint is the watchword of the evening--the space is tiny, and the house manager urges the audience to withdraw any errant feet from the aisle--the result is actually quite freeing. Heather McDonald's characters may not get anywhere, but as Faulkner trumpets at the end of The Sound and the Fury about his characters, "they endure." In Rivendell Theatre Ensemble's production as in Faulkner's novel, that endurance is lovely to see.

Don't be put off by the setup, which sounds like a joke: a family of women in 1962 in Oxford, Mississippi, become involved with their famous, famously eccentric neighbor. Faulkner has given up writing to spend his days ambushing the ladies of the town with tossed crab apples and his nights riding his bicycle into the local pond. Faulkner (Kent Reed) has writer's block, as does the younger daughter of the family, Jett (Mary Cross), recently returned home. Mama (Diane Dorsey, splendid as always) is well on her way to complete senility, and older daughter Claire (Tara Mallen) spends her time caring for Mama and rereading Faulkner and Jane Eyre.

In this context, Claire's passion for writing letters to Faulkner asking him how his characters can survive is touching rather than ridiculous, as director Edward Sobel makes clear right from the start. The play opens with a chorus of voices mixing snippets of Benjy's narrative from The Sound and the Fury--"a tale told by an idiot"--with Mama's memories; in her first clothed appearance, she's garlanded haphazardly with flowers, an Ophelia who failed to drown. Though the Faulkner novel takes its title from Macbeth, McDonald and Sobel suggest that the book is more a reply to Hamlet, a ferocious command to be rather than not to be.

But a play about a novel answering a question from a play is a risky proposition: Sobel's accomplishment is to cut through McDonald's overgrowth of allusions to reveal character and create action in the here and now. He makes short work of the characters' questions about Jett's return home--questions McDonald raises without answering--focusing instead on Claire and the play's triggering action, her theft of Faulkner's bicycle. Again, another director might have staged this encounter simply as lovers meeting cute, but Sobel emphasizes that what's at stake is the means of escape from an intolerable reality. Claire and Faulkner have the bicycle and each other, while Mama has only her evaporating memories and Jett nothing but her toy sailboats--which, unlike Faulkner's bicycle, never end up in the water.

None of these attempts to escape works: Faulkner still can't write, Claire can't save her mother. But in McDonald's view, some means of trying are more equal than others. Faulkner's riding into a pond--he circles the stage on his bike, then exits, followed by a splash--suggests both someone going nowhere fast and someone who cannot be confined, who rides in the water when he runs out of land and will ride in the air when he runs out of water. When Faulkner puts Claire up on the handlebars and tells her she can't steer, and they crash, it's a metaphor for all the ways we keep moving forward without knowing where we're going or how to recognize our destination when we get there.

And if we end up in the water--whether like Mama in the bathtub or like Claire and Faulkner in the pond--that's an opportunity to cleanse ourselves and start fresh. Jett hasn't mastered this: faced with her incontinent mother shivering in her own excrement, Jett freezes, crying, "I'm not good with messes." Claire's sane and comprehensive reply: "Who is?" While the others follow the instructions of the gospel song, wading in the water for redemption, Jett sits on the shore with her toy boats waiting for the perfect vehicle to take her to "God's celestial shore." She'll wait a long time, because as Mama announces, "Between a little grief and pain, and nothing, I'll take grief." Mama may be fading, but she remembers that those are the two choices.

Like many first plays, Faulkner's Bicycle is a bit overstuffed. The references to Jane Eyre aren't really necessary to make the point that an unsuitable love for a gloomy married man is better than no love at all. And it's a mistake to refer to Faulkner's character Dilsey--the archetypal wise African-American family retainer--when McDonald is clearly unprepared to grapple with the issue of race. It's fine to write about white people in the south and ignore race, but as soon as Claire says, "Mama makes me think of Dilsey," she raises the question whether her family's forms of endurance can properly be compared to those of their African-American neighbors.

But despite its weaknesses, Faulkner's Bicycle presents with great tenderness the results of our choice to grapple with life on its own stupid terms or hide out. The Rivendell production, a Chicago premiere, is everything a playwright could wish: tightly directed, strongly acted, and beautifully designed. Mark Reynolds's spare set is a wonder, featuring a single item--a hollow box--that does triple duty as bathtub, desk, and piano and another that transforms from suitcase to chair to TV set. Actors, designers, and director are all to be saluted for their creation of an entire world within the tiny confines of the Chicago Cultural Center studio theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Krysta Blazatis.

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