This production of Capote works creates its own set of 'Memories'

December 17, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

To anyone who has had the blissful experience of seeing the late Geraldine Page in the touching teleplays of Truman Capote's stories, "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory," the idea of a stage version might seem like sacrilege.

And while Russell Vandenbroucke's adaptation -- titled "Holiday Memories" and currently at Olney Theatre -- doesn't capture the same charm, it has a definite charm of its own.

The stories are autobiographical accounts of what Capote described as "the happiest part of an otherwise difficult childhood." Much of that happiness was due to his close relationship with a distant cousin called Miss Sook.

Described by Capote as "a child herself," though she was in her 60s, Miss Sook is played at Olney by Pamela Lewis, a young, attractive actress who totally transforms herself into a stooped, shuffling, gentle-hearted little old lady and who, wisely, makes no effort to imitate Page.

The stage adaptation relies on two chief devices. First, the character of Capote is played by two adult actors. Alan Wade plays "Truman," the grown-up narrator, and Thomas Richter plays Capote as a child, known as "Buddy," since that was what Miss Sook called him. The two actors deliver the show's opening line in unison. After that, they occasionally interact, completing one another's sentences or correcting a memory, but most of the time Buddy acts in the present while Truman reflects on his past.

The second device is more problematic. As suggested in Vandenbroucke's script -- and realized by director Jim Petosa, set designer James Kronzer, and lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner -- much of the action takes the form of a shadow play. This is enacted behind a scrim, and besides the occasional silhouettes of Buddy and Miss Sook, features actors John Lescault and Ann Timmons in multiple roles ranging from the schoolyard bully to Buddy's crotchety, parsimonious relatives.

At its best, the shadow play has a quality of child-like wonder, as it does near the end of the show when Buddy and Miss Sook hold up hand-made ornaments, and lights representing them are illuminated one by one on a shadow Christmas tree. But at other times, it has an overly self-conscious feel -- an awkward characteristic that the director may actually have intended since it is also reflected in Richter's precious depiction of 7-year-old Capote.

Of the two seasonal playlets, the one about Christmas is far more successful -- not only because of the delight of the shadow Christmas tree, but mostly because "A Christmas Memory" is a more moving, and much more dramatic, story.

"The Thanksgiving Visitor" is an account of Miss Sook's forcing Buddy to make peace with a bully; with no disrespect to the late Capote, it's the type of tale better suited to humorist writer Jean Shepherd.

In contrast, "A Christmas Memory," which focuses on Miss Sook's annual fruitcake baking, paints a more complete picture of this sweet, eccentric lady, and therefore renders Capote's closing remarks about her death all the more poignant.

In Olney's production, that poignancy not only carries over the footlights, it may well stick with you throughout the holiday season and beyond. In the final analysis, that's the best proof that these "Holiday Memories" honor both Capote's memory and the memory of their extraordinary television forebears.

"Holiday Memories"

Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and Dec. 23 at 2 p.m. (No show Dec. 25.) Through Dec. 26

Tickets: $20-$25

Call: (301) 924-3400

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