The language is the star in the Rogue Theatre production of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Coupled with a uniformly strong cast of actors and some imaginative staging by director Joseph McGrath, we get a dramatization of the famous novel that’s both powerful and poignant.
From the first scene the theater is filled with raw emotions wrung from desperate lives. The words delivered with southern accents quickly draw us into the deep Mississippi poverty of the rural Bundren family struggling against themselves and their culture to just do the right thing for once.
The year is 1927 as the Bundrens must begin stretching their luck some 40 miles across Yoknapatawpha County to bury Addie (Cynthia Meier), the family matriarch, in the town of Jefferson where she was born.
That was always Addie’s wish. Her husband Anse Bundren (David Greenwood) is determined that wish be fulfilled.
Not that there is anything particularly noble about this family. As we listen, we eventually learn Anse’s determination to reach Jefferson with Addie’s body decomposing in her homemade coffin mostly comes from needing to clear his conscience of a miserable marriage.
In their life together, Addie wasn’t too happy, either. The times were harsh. The social customs were rigid. No one strayed too far from the straight and narrow without suffering for it. Her affair with the church minister brought some comfort, but also some unfortunate consequences.
Their troubled family of five children includes three grown sons –the strong-willed and ever-angry Jewel (Christopher Johnson), often laughing and a bit psychotic Darl (Matt Bowdren), serious natured Cash (Matt Walley) – plus a younger son Vardaman (Andrew Garrett) who seems a little slow, and the equally adolescent Dewey Dell (Dylan Page), who is most definitely pregnant without benefit of marriage.
It is up to family friend Cora Tull (Leanne Whitewolf Charlton) as the God-fearing Christian woman to keep reminding everyone how important it is to suffer as much as possible now in order to assure themselves a higher place in Heaven.
Working from a script adapted by Annette Martin when she was a Distinguished Professor of Performance Studies at Eastern Michigan University, McGrath as director has chosen an essentially bare black stage to become his canvas of theatrical emotions.
With the audience seated equally on both sides of his performance space, there is a wide platform at one end and a narrower platform at the other. Vivid descriptions in expressive monologues provide all the scenery and props. Hidden behind a scrim, a string band plays music and provides sound effects.
The story begins with Addie dying in bed as her son Cash lovingly builds her coffin just outside Addie’s bedroom window so she can watch. As we meet the other family members Addie passes away, the casket is loaded onto the family’s rickety wagon and the journey begins.
Immediately they run into trouble as a storm washes out the only bridge across a river, so they try to ford the rushing waters. This is a total disaster for the harried Bundrens but a fine dramatic scene for the audience.
We can see, hear and feel the tumult, thanks in large part to some massively muscular acting by Johnson as Jewel turns his anger into defiance of the swollen river, the weak wagon and the heavy coffin that comes loose in the water.
Further misadventures give each cast member an opportunity center stage in this ensemble performance. While Jewel has the dominant personality, each of the family members contributes mightily. Even Addie, though she has died, returns in a flashback scene to become the solid figure which held this lost family together.
“As I Lay Dying” continues in performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 20 at the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. Tickets are $30; $15 on Half-Price Thursdays Nov. 10 and 17, and during student rush 15 minutes before each curtain. For details and reservations, 520-551-2053, or visit www.theroguetheatre.org