Wise Blood, WNEP Theater Foundation, at the Chopin Theatre. Flannery O'Connor said Wise Blood was to be read with zest, and Jen Ellison's stage adaptation of the 1952 novel has captured that spiritual gusto. But in other ways Ellison's adaptation may be too loyal. Some moments, particularly in the second act, lack context, and exposition beyond the novel's dialogue would have helped establish characters' motives and relationships. This sparse retelling conveys none of the dramatic impact in the action forcing Hazel Motes to face his own truth.
It's not actor Brian McCaskill's fault. His Motes, a war veteran returning to Tennessee to preach a "church of Christ without Christ," is effectively brooding, spitting and growling his lines while flinching at physical contact. He handily upstages the eccentric preacher Asa, played with little anger or passion by Ken Roush. What truly propel this show are Motes's scenes with the hunched, brazen Sabbath Hawks (Lisa Velten) and with the awkward, pitiable outcast Enoch Emery, who provides much of the play's comedy but in Chris Thornton's portrayal doesn't reveal the necessary desperate need for connection. In Ellison's staging, a moment meant to be Enoch's biggest disappointment is played for laughs.
Spirituals sung by the ensemble, though at times too long, add depth to an already rich soundscape. But in an unfortunate bit of irony the cast sings "I saw the light" even as Jacob Snodgrass's haphazard lighting makes us often wish we were so lucky.