March 2, 2010

Steppenwolf nearly makes A Separate Peace a theatrical masterpiece

One of my former English professors used to say something along the lines of “A masterpiece is perfect because it’s a masterpiece.” I would always roll my eyes at this tautology. But while watching the Steppenwolf Theatre’s adaptation of John Knowles’ classic novel A Separate Peace, I came to understand this saying’s meaning for the first time.

A Separate Peace is one of my favorite books, so in my view the production’s source material can’t be improved on—it is a masterpiece, and thus, perfect. Steppenwolf gamely tries to emulate the novel’s successes, and, to a large extent, the theater succeeds.

The story centers on the relationship between Gene and Finny, two roommates and best friends at The Devon School, a boy’s boarding school based on the elite, East Coast institution of Phillips Exeter Academy. The two are polar opposites: Gene is reticent, intelligent, and insecure, while Finny is athletic, confident, and easygoing. Soon enough, Gene begins to resent Finny for his talents, leading to tragic consequences.

Damir Konjicija (Finny) steals every scene he’s in, perfectly capturing the purity and guilelessness of Finny’s enthusiasm. And, in general, Nancy Gilsenan, who adapted the novel for the stage, has a keen eye for pulling out some of the book’s best lines and including them in the play verbatim—a particularly smart choice when it comes to the last several lines of the book.

Occasionally, the play lapses in portraying the subtleties that are key to the narrative. Such is the case with one of the most important scenes, where Gene “jounces” a tree limb, causing Finny to fall and break his leg. In the play, the jounce is aggressive, an unquestionable act of attack that removes an important ambiguity from the narrative. Moreover, in the book, Gene follows Finny’s fall with a jump of his own that had “unthinking sureness…every trace of [his] fear forgotten”; in the play, Gene simply climbs down from the tree, effectively halting the scene’s effectiveness.

Similarly, the story’s peripheral characters are warped into caricatures. Leper, another student at the school, is the classic nerd—glasses, tucked-in shirt, the works—who is occasionally exploited for some cheap laughs from the audience. The other supporting characters are likewise two-dimensional.

The play’s brevity is to blame for part of this. A brisk hour and five minutes, the play could have made good use of an additional 15 minutes or so to expand on its themes. A deeper exploration of Finny and Gene’s relationship, as well as more consideration of the rest of the ensemble, would have made the extended running time well worth it.

The play’s dialogue has to do a significant amount of work to emulate the novel’s exposition and inner monologue. However, the intended effect of the prose gets lost in translation. An important part of the story is how Gene keeps his resentment bottled up inside; in the play, however, Gene explains every feeling to Finny, which just isn’t the same. Here, the director could have made better use of the retrospective voiceover from a much older Gene that’s used as a frame device at the beginning and end of the play.

The dialogue is also used to pose questions that are best left unasked. At one point, wondering what his best friend sees in him, Gene asks Finny, “Why’d you choose me?” This is one of the central questions in the story, a question that the viewer asks throughout—but voicing it explicitly comes off as obvious and forced, without getting any closer to an actual answer.

In the end, however, this adaptation captures the dynamic between Finny and Gene well, and it’s this loyalty to the heart of the story that carries the play. Despite a few false steps in the dramatic interpretation, the source material is strong enough (one could even say perfect) that seeing it enacted on the stage is a reminder, indeed, of what makes A Separate Peace the masterpiece that it is.