Painstakingly faithful and ravishingly composed, the new stage version of Ralph Ellison’s masterwork, “Invisible Man,” is a wholly respectable and at times even radiantly evocative portrait of the life of the soul at its center, a black man who confides in us everything but his name.
Every word of adapter Oren Jacoby’s script — brought to the Studio Theatre stage with visual panache by director Christopher McElroen — comes directly from Ellison’s sensational 1952 novel, about a gifted young African American intellectual who does not truly find himself until he realizes his life amounts to nothing.
Although the production is blessed with a commanding performance by Teagle F. Bougere, who over the course of three acts and three hours recounts for us the Dickensian episodes in the young man’s progress, the fealty to the original text may not serve the theater quite as well as it does American letters. This “Invisible Man” abounds in narrative clarity and stylish invention. But while the story moves along, it never deepens. The tale does not so much rise and fall, as flat-line. And so we’re presented with an elegant if, at this point, fairly static discourse.
Still, admirers of Ellison’s searing images and language will find many moments to savor in this urbane epic, whose ingenuity lies not so much in its revelations about African American experience, as in one black man’s unsentimental reflections on his own. This proves especially rewarding in Acts 1 and 2, when the inevitable hardening of the young man’s shell commences, and he begins to learn that how he may envision himself is not the way the rest of the world looks at him.
“I am an invisible man,” Bougere’s character announces solemnly at the outset of the play, just the way Ellison’s eloquent novel begins. He narrates his many disappointments from his cluttered urban hermitage, a basement “hole” in Harlem in which he’s managed to illegally wire 1,369 lights. The floating ceiling of light bulbs devised by set designer Troy Hourie and lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger — a minor marvel — acts as an ironic underlining of the young man’s plight. “Without light I am not only invisible but formless as well,” he says in the novel. But no amount of artificial light can adequately illuminate a human being who thinks he can’t truly be seen.
That opening declaration, however, is the invitation to a highly animated exegesis, rather than an evening of dramatic suppleness. The young man’s journey over the early- to mid-20th century traces a schizoid path through events both demeaning and rife with possibility. In an early scene, he’s granted a scholarship to a black college by a racist club of Southern white men, who also put him through a humiliating contest in blindfold. Once off at college, he’s asked to chauffeur a gentler white benefactor (Edward James Hyland), in a jaunt that ends so disastrously that the young man is unfairly expelled and his reputation besmirched by the self-serving college president (Johnny Lee Davenport).
The incidents pile up, each one meticulously acted and staged with abundant theater savvy by McElroen, co-founder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem. To the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the black and white projections by Imaginary Media’s Alex Koch intensify the period flavors, which are further affirmed in Kathleen Geldard’s impressively apt costumes. Some literary irony is applied effectively, as when the young man, forced to take a lowly job with a paint company, is injured in a workplace explosion that burns a layer of white paint on his features.
The nine actors in Bougere’s sterling orbit expertly fulfill their appointed missions. Especially strong are Davenport, as the craven college president; Jeremiah Kissel, as a mild-mannered New York businessman, sympathetic to the young man’s struggle, and Deidra LaWan Starnes, playing a bighearted Harlem dweller who takes the young man in, as he’s absorbed into the city’s turbulent politics.
The narrative structure, though, poses limits on how much the actors are allowed to show us. Too much of the time, we rely on what the narrator has to tell us. “I did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility,” he says. That sense of discovery on this occasion remains elusive. The crystalline words the invisible man intones have to exist as incandescently in three urgent dimensions as they do on the page.
Adapted from Ralph Ellison’s novel by Oren Jacoby. Directed by Christopher McElroen. Set, Troy Hourie; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; sound, David Remedios; projections, Imaginary Media; fight direction, Robb Hunter; dramaturgy, Adrien-Alice Hansel. With Brian D. Coats, De’Lon Grant, McKinley Belcher III, Joy Jones, Julia Watt. About three hours. Through Oct. 14 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.