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Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 3 production of Will Stutts’s The Gift brings audiences straight to Monroeville, Alabama, in spring 1959. There rests Andrew Thompson’s set, a glorious Southern porch with all the trimmings and, beyond, a doorway into the home in which To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (née Nelle Harper Lee) lived for most of her life.
The Gift visits the relationship between Lee and writer Truman Capote, and it's studded with snippets of truth and historical accuracy. However, the play culminates in what Capote often referred to as “fictionalized reporting,” his own stock in trade.
Under the direction of Greg Wood, Susan Riley Stevens movingly captures Lee, age 33, in her ordered routine, struggling with insecurity and crippling shyness. Unable to write, she gave up her New York apartment and returned to Monroeville. Capote, two years older and her close childhood friend, neighbor, and houseguest, is thriving and finding fame and acclaim in New York. Capote’s desire for both contrasts palpably with Lee’s isolation.
Warren Kelley’s Buddy (Capote’s childhood nickname), though noticeably taller than Capote, brings us the writer’s quintessential charm, effeminate flair, and mastery of repartee. Kelley also highlights Capote’s penchant to manipulate and betray those who trusted him -- a flaw that, years after these captured moments, led to his social isolation and subsequent downfall.
As the drama progresses, we find only “alternative facts.” Capote will soon depart to rural Kansas to begin work on his milestone "nonfiction novel," In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, published in January 1966. He implores Lee to join him to arrange interviews, befriend those who can help the book succeed, and help him focus on his work. In return, he will rewrite a manuscript for her.
Athough Lee did accompany Capote to Kansas and devotedly assisted him, there is no research verifying that Capote ever edited Lee’s manuscipt, offered the suggestions the play brings us, or introduced her to his Random House publisher, Bennett Cerf, as alluded to in the play. Research does reveal, however, that Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman (published in its original form shortly before Lee’s 2016 death), was heavily edited by legendary J.B. Lippincott editor Tay Hohoff, who suggested the story be told through Scout’s eyes and insisted that Atticus Finch’s racism be eliminated.
Further, following the publications of Mockingbird (July 1960) and In Cold Blood (five and a half years later), Capote and Lee’s friendship cooled dramatically. In Cold Blood was Capote’s last major work. His cruel, thinly disguised 1965 Esquire exposé of the private lives of William and Babe Paley led to rejection by his closest circle of friends. He never recovered from this loss.
The strengths of The Gift are noteworthy. Playwright Will Stutts has given impressive talent a well-written story, and Wood brings it to life. However, the theory on which this play is based just isn’t plausible.
To read SaraKay Smullens's essay on Harper Lee and the controversial publication of her novel Go Set a Watchman, click here.
What, When, Where
The Gift. By Will Stutts; Greg Wood directed. Through March 23, 2017, at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
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