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