SCAD production does justice to two Flannery O’Connor masterpieces

Sharon Ott first told me a couple of years ago about her goal of seeing a couple of Flannery O’Connor stories performed on stage here in Savannah.

And now she has realized that dream — gloriously.

Building on the work of Karen Coonrod, who first got the rights to do stage performances with a literal word-for-word fidelity to the texts, Ott has directed an excellent ensemble of SCAD students and overseen the creation of a beautiful and appropriate stage at SCAD’s Arnold Hall on Bull Street. (The show is actually being presented on a stage in the backstage area of Arnold’s theater. The seats are tight and the show was a sellout on opening night Thursday, so I’d suggest buying tickest asap at the link below.)

The folks who control Flannery O’Connor’s work have always been cautious about adaptations, about releasing documents that haven’t already been made public, and about other unauthorized uses that might infringe copyright. In this case, by insisting that the texts remain entirely intact, the stewards of O’Connor’s work have given a gift to producers, actors, and directors. Characters are forced to do the narration between their own spoken dialogue, or go quiet for a moment while another character steps forward — sometimes for just a single word — to finish the thought.

I suppose that effect could get a bit dizzying, but it’s beautiful in the hands of Ott’s cast, who take a particular relish in the descriptions of faces and eyes, of the sky, and of the darkening lines of trees in the distance.

“Greenleaf” is first up in SCAD’s production this weekend, followed by “Everything That Rises Must Converge”.

“Greenleaf” is a longer story than I recalled, and the production runs about an hour. Meg Kelly was steely at times as Mrs. May, but at other times she loosened her body and features with malevolent delight or frustrated rage. Austin Blunk is wonderfully laconic as Mr. Greenleaf, her shiftless hired help whose two sons are — without even trying — making Mrs. May’s life hell. As opposed to her own sons Wesley and Scofield, O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf (twins who never appear on stage) are improbably successful after coming back from WWII with French brides, getting a new brick house built with government support, and are now populating post-War Georgia with a new class of people — a class that Mrs. May thinks is terminally below her.

It’s a sprawling story with mythic elements, as Mrs. May seeks to rid her farm of a stray bull from the Greenleaf property. Mrs. Greenleaf (Ryan Long) lolls desperately in religious frenzy; two of the youngest Greenleaf children and Mrs. May’s own sons (all played by Max Reinhardsen and Miranda Robbins, understudy for Ashley Prince on opening night) provide comic relief at the same time they confirm Mrs. May’s suspicions that the old Southern hierarchies are unraveling; simple changes to the set take us inside and out, let us see the future and the past through Mrs. May’s eyes.

The story’s racial themes and the occasional racist language used by the characters are particularly powerful on stage, in part because of the presence of three African-American cast members. Ron King, Camille Jenkins, and Amanda Odulah at many points become a Greek chorus preparing us for the inevitable.

Although I suspect that a first time viewer won’t anticipate the inevitable until it’s happening.

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” ran about 45 minutes.  Unlike the sprawling mythic structure of “Greenleaf”, the story has a clear dramatic thrust and takes place in just three settings — the home of Julian and his mother, the bus, and the sidewalk after they’ve disembarked near the Y.

Ott’s cast for the most part play single roles in the performance — Meg Kelly as the Woman with Protruding Teeth, Miranda Robbins (understudy for Ashley Prince) as the Woman with Red Canvas Sandals, Ron King as the Negro on the Bus, Camille Jenkins as the boy Carver, and Amanda Oduah as Carver’s Mother. Austin Blunk is the Narrator in this one, and has a couple of particularly nice phrasings as the action climaxed.

And of course there’s Julian, played with an appropriate edginess and irritability by Max Reinhardsen, and Julian’s mother, with Ryan Long providing just the right imperious touches and capturing the tragic figure’s vulnerability at the end of the story.

A couple of crowded benches serve to convey the confines of the local bus, and the ensemble at its best seem to be physically connected — pull a string here, and a character moves over there.

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” was one of O’Connor’s most direct grapplings with race. Like Mrs. May, Julian’s mother is being overwhelmed with a changing society, but while Mrs. May is facing increased global connections and the rise of America’s new middle class in the post WWII period, Julian’s mother is confronted more directly: she has to share the bus with blacks.

“Greenleaf” rises to the level of myth even as it tells a concrete story, while “Everything That Rises Must Converge” sticks closer to the moment. The painful public interactions are all too real, as America’s past, present, and future confront each other on that evening bus ride in 1961.

I obviously never met Flannery O’Connor, but I’ve felt various connections to her for a long time. I’m former president of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home here in Savannah, and I’ve been fortunate to develop some sort of relationship with many of the key figures involved with O’Connor’s legacy here in Savannah, in Milledgeville, and elsewhere. Still, I have no idea how O’Connor herself would have reacted to these stage productions, but I like to think she would have been impressed by the clarity of her own language in the voices of these actors, and by the way the narrative production emphasizes both the humor and the humanity.

Click here for ticket info.

Click here for more from the Savannah Morning News.

Click here for more from Connect Savannah.