Bethesda nov­el­ist Alice McDer­mott will watch her book get new life on­stage in Fe­bru­ary.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY style@wash­post.com Press­ley is a free­lance writer.

Alice McDer­mott doesn’t have to adapt. The Bethesda-based nov­el­ist has no taste for col­lab­o­ra­tion, and that chased her away from theater and to­ward fic­tion years ago, de­spite an affin­ity for drama­tists in­clud­ing J.M. Synge and Eu­gene O’Neill.

So as the Round House The­atre brings McDer­mott’s 1998 Na­tional Book Award­win­ning novel “Charm­ing Billy” to its stage start­ing Wed­nes­day, it’s with her bless­ing. The grunt work, how­ever, she is gladly leav­ing to oth­ers — namely to Round House artis­tic di­rec­tor Blake Ro­bi­son, who wooed her with a stream­lined idea for a stage ver­sion over cof­fee more than two years ago.

“ The book is the book,” McDer­mott says of “Charm­ing Billy,” per­haps the best-known of her ac­claimed nov­els. (“ That Night,” “At Wed­dings and Wakes” and “Af­ter This” were all Pulitzer Prize fi­nal­ists.) “At this point, noth­ing in the book is go­ing to change, and this is some­thing else. And I like that idea.”

As for her re­la­tion­ship with the theater: “ This is it,” she says, laugh­ing, en­ter­ing the Round House lobby for a joint in­ter­view with Ro­bi­son, who will di­rect the show.

A few days later, that the­atri­cal con­nec­tion deep­ens — a lit­tle. McDer­mott is ush­ered onto the wide, half-lighted stage to meet the Hous­ton-based hus­ban­dand-wife de­sign team of Kevin Rig­don (set and lights) and Trish Rig­don (cos­tumes). McDer­mott stands on Kevin Rig­don’s ver­sion of the worn green and white tile floor she de­scribed in “Charm­ing Billy,” a book that lyri­cally ex­plores the friends and fam­ily of Billy Lynch, who, in his 20s, lost the girl he was sure he’d marry and then drank him­self to death. The back of Rig­don’s set is dom­i­nated by a mas­sive black bar.

McDer­mott nods a lot as the Rig­dons, who have ex­e­cuted 45 shows to­gether, ex­plain how they’ve trans­lated her story into places that au­di­ences can see and cloth­ing ac­tors can wear. They worked pri­mar­ily from Ro­bi­son’s script, of course, but they re­fer to the novel as “ truth serum,” the ul­ti­mate source when they need more clues. Very quickly it’s in­side base­ball, as Trish nee­dles her hus­band about the has­sles of cre­at­ing fu­ne­real cos­tumes that won’t dis­ap­pear against his black set.

“Wow,” McDer­mott says ap­pre­cia­tively as the Rig­dons out­line the chal­lenges of leap­ing across decades of time (nearly 40 years) and oceans of space (Long Is­land to Ire­land) in mere sec­onds of stage time. “Yeah. This is why prose is easy: ‘Mean­while, back at the beach . . . .’ ”

A lit­tle later, McDer­mott sits next to Ro­bi­son for the ini­tial pre­sen­ta­tion at what is sched­uled to be a long first re­hearsal day. Cast, crew, theater staffers, even a few board mem­bers fill a small re­hearsal room. Ev­ery­one for­mally in­tro­duces them­selves. The props de­signer grabs the moment to make an an­nounce­ment that gen­er­ates laugh­ter: “If you have any empty liquor bot­tles at home, please bring them in. I need them for [set] dress­ing.”

Ro­bi­son as­sures the assem­bly that the ac­tors’ in­sights about McDer­mott’s much-loved book will be wel­come as they re­hearse. But, he says, “I don’t want to turn this into an ex­er­cise in group playwrit­ing — we don’t have time for

— Alice McDer­mott,

that, and it’s not ter­ri­bly pro­duc­tive.”

He tells the group a funny story about a Texas fu­neral — Billy’s fu­neral is the present tense of the story — then re­peats some­thing he’d said ear­lier in the week: “I don’t want to be the guy who screws up ‘Charm­ing Billy.’ ”

McDer­mott’s only state­ment dur­ing the 45-minute pre­sen­ta­tion is de­liv­ered with a grin: “I think not screw­ing it up is a noble goal.” The group laughs. “ The process it­self is what is new to me,” McDer­mott says in the in­ter­view with Ro­bi­son. For a moment, she seems smitten as she de­scribes a day au­di­tion­ing ac­tors: “ These peo­ple, on a rainy midweek morn­ing, can walk in and say hello with just a cou­ple peo­ple sit­ting at a ta­ble, and then trans­form them­selves and bare their souls— and then stop, and say thanks, and walk out.”

At her all-girl Catholic high school on Long Is­land, McDer­mott was the go-to writer for skits that marked oc­ca­sions dur­ing the year. At some point in her aca­demic ca­reer, a teacher told her she was good enough to write for “ The Carol Bur­nett Show.”

“Not quite re­ally what I was go­ing for,” McDer­mott says.

She has re­tained that early in­ter­est in theater, though. McDer­mott has been to var­i­ous Round House shows over the years, and she uses drama to teach fic­tion: “En­ter, and exit, and an­other story line comes in,” she says. “ Those are all the things that a nov­el­ist has to deal with. But when you read a novel, you don’t see it as clearly as when you read a play.”

She and Ro­bi­son seem to have been of like minds re­gard­ing adap­ta­tions when they met two years ago. “Charm­ing Billy” has a nar­ra­tor, but nei­ther of them cares for nar­ra­tors in film or on­stage. “So we didn’t want to go the ‘Glass Menagerie’ route,” Ro­bi­son says. “Or voice-overs,” McDer­mott adds. Al­though they come from dif­fer­ent an­gles, Ro­bi­son and McDer­mott are vet­er­ans of the adap­ta­tion game. Since ar­riv­ing as Round House’s artis­tic di­rec­tor in 2005, Ro­bi­son has made lit­er­ary work a pro­gram­ming cor­ner­stone. Be­fore

“The book is the book. . . . At this point, noth­ing in the book is go­ing to change, and this is some­thing else. And I like that idea.”

on the stage adap­ta­tion of her novel “Charm­ing Billy”

that, his own adapt­ing ef­forts in­cluded putting Jay Parini’s “ The Last Sta­tion” on­stage.

McDer­mott had an early novel, “ That Night,” turned into a 1992 movie with Juli­ette Lewis and C. Thomas How­ell, but the me­mory makes her gri­mace. So do her ac­counts of the Hollywood treat­ments she has seen of “Charm­ing Billy.”

“One opened with a hor­ri­ble scene of Billy fall­ing off a curb and a let­ter to Eva [Billy’s true love] be­ing washed away down a gut­ter,” McDer­mott says with a laugh. “I mean, where do we go from here?” An­other would-be adapter un­did the flash­back struc­ture of the book and tried to tell the tale strictly chrono­log­i­cally. Yet an­other phoned McDer­mott ask­ing for the truth, left vague in the novel, about why Billy and his long-suf­fer­ing wife, Maeve, never had kids. (The writer couldn’t han­dle the truth: It was prob­a­bly a celi­bate mar­riage.)

“So hav­ing seen some ap­proaches where your gut feel­ing is, well, that’s not gonna work, I’ve just re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated that clar­ity,” McDer­mott says, prais­ing Ro­bi­son’s stripped-down ap­proach. “ That was very re­as­sur­ing to me.”

McDer­mott and Ro­bi­son, who met pe­ri­od­i­cally as Ro­bi­son’s script evolved, also agreed from the start that Ir­ish ac­cents would be for­bid­den on­stage, ex­cept for the few Ir­ish char­ac­ters who ap­pear. (That’s an­other thing the Hollywood stabs at “Charm­ing Billy” have bun­gled: “It should be more Archie Bunker than Barry Fitzger­ald,” McDer­mott told one pro­ducer. “ They were ready to sing ‘ Tura Lura Lura.’ ”)

As for hav­ing to ax so much prose that is rou­tinely ac­claimed as among the most gor­geous and metic­u­lously crafted in Amer­i­can fic­tion, Ro­bi­son un­der­stands the con­cern and is armed with a diplo­matic re­sponse.

“ The joy of it is tak­ing bits of di­a­logue and fus­ing them to­gether in ways that will serve the story and heighten each char­ac­ter’s in­di­vid­u­al­ity,” he says. “So I hang on to that, in­stead of mourn­ing the losses of my fa­vorite de­scrip­tive pas­sages.”

McDer­mott, stick­ing to her guns, has no such pangs. “I’m happy to be out of it,” she says. “I’m happy to let it roll.”

BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST

LEAP­ING OFF THE PAGE: Bethesda-based nov­el­ist AliceMcDer­mott, whose 1998 Na­tional Book Award-win­ning novel, “Charm­ing Billy,” is be­ing adapted for the stage at Round­House The­atre.

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