In a Shallow Grave
Book-It at Seattle Repertory Theatre's PONCHO Forum, 325-6500. Through June 24.

Book-It usually adapts pretty safe books--classy but conservative. (Next season's shows include Howard's End, Ethan Frome, and Owen Meany's Christmas). But James Purdy has never been a safe writer. His style is direct and elaborate, colloquial and strange. He doesn't believe in the simplistic epiphanies or psychological "answers" most mainstream fiction provides. He writes about the intersection of violence and love, of religion and sex. He mocks the smug self-righteousness of middle-brow artsy fartsies, and he wrote--before many other people had the cojones to--about erotic and spiritual love between men.

So, as thrilled as I was to see Purdy's work given this attention, I was also a bit leery about anyone staging In a Shallow Grave. This 1975 novel, Purdy's ninth, is a gothic allegory in which Garnet Montrose, a wounded Vietnam vet, returns to his old Virginia home grossly disfigured by war. His skin has been turned inside out, his veins and arteries exposed; everyone's first reaction when seeing him is to retch or run away. Though deeply, viscerally, emotionally true, Purdy's story is not meant to be interpreted literally. A lesser theater company might have--like the horrible l988 film adaptation--gone for cheap visuals.

Thank goodness Book-It doesn't. The only visual references to Garnet's blood are the subtle dark red swaths of linen that hang above the stage. Director Jane Jones adapted In a Shallow Grave for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and workshopped it there for five months. The resulting script is a mature, nuanced, and very satisfying interpretation of a great book. This Seattle production serves it superbly.

Garnet is played by Stephen Hando, a favorite actor in local independent theater, as well as the artistic director of Printer's Devil Theatre. Hando excels at comedy, so I was curious to see how he'd handle this serious role; what he creates is a perfect mix of pathos and camp, of earnestness and artifice. In the first scene, when a military doctor removes the bandages from Garnet's face, he tells the wounded veteran: "What you will need now you are about to be separated from the Army... is someone to watch over you...." Garnet looks for an "applicant," or hired man, to massage his wounds and deliver love letters to his childhood sweetheart, Widow Rance. Among these applicants is the bookish Quintus, a young black man. As Garnet has been wounded by war, so Quintus has been wounded by racism; Reginald Andre Jackson captures perfectly the tentative reserve that covers Quintus' anger. The other important applicant is Daventry, a drifter played by Troy Miszklevitz. I've been impressed with Miszklevitz's work before (he was particularly versatile in Theater Schmeater's Transformations), but the role requires an actor to move from being brooding and sexy to angelic and Christlike; Miszklevitz can't quite pull it off.

Garnet hires Daventry to deliver missives to Widow Rance, and the drifter moves from being merely the messenger of love to its object. When the Widow Rance falls in love with Daventry, Garnet realizes that he too loves the beautiful man. This love-triangle story is hardly unique, but what Purdy and Book-It do with it is beautiful. They turn it into a story of redemption, of finding love where you hadn't thought to look.

Book-It is faithful to Purdy's archaic and colloquial, majestic and goofy language. But some of the show's musical additions are dubious; starting the play with a spare a cappella "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" fits the mood, but bringing in pop tunes like "You Can't Hurry Love" doesn't. Likewise, having Widow Rance appear on stage during Garnet's dance-hall fantasy may be pleasing visually (it prefigures some lovely imagery later in the play), but it undercuts the idea that Garnet is utterly alone at this point in the story.

But these are quibbles. Book-It's In a Shallow Grave is a valuable staging of an important and underappreciated American classic about the mystery of love and how it can redeem even the most wounded among us.