Directed by Joe Tantalo
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, ‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’” Obadiah 1:3
Obadiah tried to warn Edom to repent of its pride, its inexorable hubris – but to no avail. The nation had its literal and figurative “home on the heights” and presumed no one or nothing could bring it “down to the ground. Lewis (Gregory Konow) has similar concerns in Sean Tyler’s adaptation of James Dickey’s “Deliverance” currently being presented by the Godlight Theatre company at 59E59 Theater C in Manhattan. “Y’know,” warns Lewis, “one day the machines are gonna fail, and the political systems are gonna fail.” Ed (Nick Paglino) asks him, “And what are we gonna do then?” Lewis responds, “I had an air-raid shelter built.”
Lewis convinces Ed, Bobby (Jarrod Zayas), and Drew (Sean Tant) that a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River might take their minds off the impending demise of civilization and give them the opportunity to experience the river and its environs before the valley is totally submerged to create a dam. Lewis boasts, “It’s breath-taking up there. Once you’ve experienced it you’ll never see the world the same way again.” A few mountain men, the Griner brothers, a sheriff, and his deputy (Jason Bragg Stanley, Bryce Hodgson, and Eddie Dunn) manage to ensure that prediction will materialize.
In 1970, after Nixon’s failed “Vietnamization” plan, the United States invaded Cambodia and the student protests at Kent State and Jackson State result in the deaths of six students. In 1970 James Dickey wrote “Deliverance.” America’s longest war sparked not only widespread protest; the war seemed also to spark self-examination and self-possession. Although ‘deliverance’ refers to the salvation of the isolated penitent through humble acceptance of divine grace, Dickey also explicitly relates the concept of deliverance to its implied recognition of the importance of the other, of the limits of self-possession.
“Deliverance” serves as a trope for this recognition of the limits of self-possession. Lewis’s trip results in humiliation, sexual assault, and murder. His pride and condescending attitude toward “the locals” results in a significant fall from grace. Three of the four men return home. And, in their reintegration into the human community, it is a deliverance precisely from self-control, from the bleak tyranny of the autonomous self. All this comes with considerable cost and heightens the irony of the novel’s seemingly redemptive title.
Although Ed admonishes Bobby, “Remember your movies,” it is better not to remember John Boorman’s 1972 film adaptation of “Deliverance” when watching Joe Tantalo’s staging of Sean Tyler’s adaptation of the novel. It is far better to remember James Dickey’s novel itself and what it is that good readers need to do when exploring text: good readers should try to read aloud and should visualize as they read. The Godlight Theatre Company is committed to creating original adaptations of modern classical literature not adaptations of movies based on those classics.
Under Joe Tantalo’s direction, the ensemble cast in essence does precisely what good readers do and provides the audience with an authentic “read” of Mr. Dickey’s challenging novel. And this is not an easy read. The novel – banned in the past from high school libraries – contains graphic and sometimes disturbing imagery of what happens when four “city boys” attempt to control their environment (personal and global) and take charge of their lives as autonomous entities. Before the trip, Lewis describes the valley people in this way: “They’re good people up here, y’know. Sure they live in their clans and they’re set in their ways.” That might describe most of humankind as it attempts to make sense of the world from the heights. And there is no certainty that building air-raid shelters will help in that journey.