Theater preview: 'Charming Billy' at Round House Theatre

LEAPING OFF THE PAGE: Bethesda-based novelist Alice McDermott, whose 1998 National Book Award-winning novel, "Charming Billy," is being adapted for the stage at Round House Theatre.
LEAPING OFF THE PAGE: Bethesda-based novelist Alice McDermott, whose 1998 National Book Award-winning novel, "Charming Billy," is being adapted for the stage at Round House Theatre. (Bill O'leary)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 28, 2011; 1:53 PM

Charming Billy

Adapted and directed by Blake Robison from the novel by Alice McDermott. Feb. 2-20 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.

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 Award-winning 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 husband-and-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 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.' "


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