NEW YORK—Man’s survival instinct is at the heart of Godlight Theatre Company’s brilliantly harrowing stage adaptation of James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance, now having its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters.
In the state of Georgia, middle-aged friends Lewis (Gregory Konow), Ed (Nick Paglino), Bobby (Jarrod Zayas), and Drew (Sean Tant) decide to take a canoe trip through an overgrown valley, soon to be flooded in the name of progress. This is a chance to see some beautiful scenery, sleep under the stars, hunt and fish for their meals, and basically live as men used to in the days before civilization.
The trip is the brainchild of Lewis, the most macho of the four and the one with seemingly the most knowledge of what to expect from the so-called mountain men and other locals they may encounter.
One morning soon after, the group drives far past their usual haunts to a secluded wooded area near the river to begin their trip. They’ve received repeated warnings from the locals they meet not to go.
At first things all go according to plan, their biggest problems being mosquito bites and arms that ache from paddling. But when Ed and Bobby make an impromptu stop along the river bank, they meet up with two armed locals who don’t take kindly to interlopers, especially when their comments are perhaps just a bit condescending.
The two strangers teach Ed and Bobby a horrifying lesson they’ll never forget. The lesson is only stopped when Lewis arrives with Drew in tow and kills one of the attackers; the other escapes into the woods.
However, simply burying the body and going on as if nothing happened is an option ultimately denied them. Before another day passes, one of the group will die and another will be injured as their trip becomes a fight for survival. Those still alive battle not only those who may be trying to kill them, but also their own civilized ways, as they struggle to make it home.
One of the main strengths of Godlight’s presentations has been the ability to put its audience in the middle of the story, and this time is no exception.
Entering the theater, one walks into a fog-shrouded playing space with the audience seated on all sides. The effect is one of heavy humidity and oppressiveness, as fitting the areas the men pass through on their trip—great job by Maruti Evans for the set and lighting design.
Joe Tantalo’s direction is also quite good, making the audience feel as if they are right out on the river and caught in the rapids with the characters. We watch in utter silence the rape that takes place.
Even the lighter scenes early on, such as a guitar sequence with Drew and a silent banjo player (Bryce Hodgson), contain an overtone of tension with a feeling that one is simply watching the calm before the storm.
Helping to add to the overall effect is the excellent sound design work by Ien DeNio and the original music by Danny Blackburn and Hodgson.
Sean Tyler’s adaptation is both gripping and image filled. The early dialogue between the four friends quickly determines the pecking order of the group. Lewis is on top of this particular food chain, followed by Ed, Drew, and finally Bobby.
Eventually that order is reversed, and Lewis is forced to depend on others. Bobby refuses to leave a friend behind even when it would be much easier to head for safety on his own. Ed is basically forced to adapt to the laws of the jungle in order to do what needs to be done—or so he thinks.
A strong point is the tale’s overall uncertainty. Does one of the men simply fall into the water and drown or was he shot? Is a man Ed confronts actually the one who held him captive?
It’s questions such as these that linger throughout the story and that will quite probably haunt the survivors, on both sides of the equation, for the rest of their lives. The text also contains a not so subtle warning of the dangers of going outside of one’s comfort zone.
Konow is fine as Lewis, the weekend warrior who thinks he has all the answers and who is a little too sure of himself.
Zayas gives Bobby a surprising resiliency, as almost the doormat of a man who shows that while he may not have what it takes to survive in the wilderness, he’s definitely willing to put the welfare of others ahead of his own.
Tant works fine as Drew, a sort of hopeful fellow who takes joy in finding beauty in the most unexpected places; and Paglino is excellent as Ed, a man suddenly thrust into a position of leadership and who, before the trip is over, will look into the depths of his very soul and hopefully be able to deal with what he finds there.
Godlight Theatre Company’s adaptation of Deliverance grabs the audience by the throat and never lets go till after the final curtain.
Also in the cast are Jason Bragg Stanley and Eddie Dunn.
59 E. 59th St.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or ticketcentral.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Closes: Nov. 9
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.