It seems ironic that a play concerned with the divide between fact and fiction should pivot on a largely discredited myth about two real-life personalities.
Will Stutts’ The Gift, which opened Thursday night at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, nevertheless still works as a study of the deep friendship between characters based on Harper Lee, known as Nelle, and Truman Capote, whom she calls Buddy.
The titular gift is a reference, in part, to the once buzzy notion that Capote may have had a significant hand in rewriting Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Few scholars still believe that. The idea had more currency in 1998, when the Walnut Street Studio premiered the work, and its centrality to the plot mars this revival.
It helps to see the gift more metaphorically, as the symbiotic bond between these two writers and misfits, dating from their shared Alabama childhood. As a character study, unmoored from a literal recounting of literary history, The Gift is more successful -- not least because of Warren Kelley’s bravura performance as Buddy. It’s easy to believe him when he asserts: “I can talk the devil into heaven."
Kelley’s turn as the mincing, alcoholic Capote figure, an acerbic fount of both ego and insecurity, is reason enough to see this show. As directed by Greg Wood, himself one of Philadelphia’s premiere actors, Kelley nails the laugh lines -- of which there are many -- but also the pathos beneath the surface.
Susan Riley Stevens also makes a strong impression as Nelle, the meticulous small-town obit writer on the brink of literary stardom. But her emotions sometimes seem outsize for this intimate theater, where Andrew Thompson’s hyperrealistic, flower-bedecked Southern porch set takes up almost as much space as the seating for the audience.
Nelle, not unlike her real-life counterpart, is a distinctly problematic figure. Stutts, also an Alabama native, wants us to believe she's at once a highly capable journalist, prepared to conduct the interviews that will undergird Capote’s future classic In Cold Blood, and a woman so reclusive that she will spend most of her life ducking the world. That seems hard to swallow -- even if it mirrors Lee’s biography.
Stutts also asks us to believe that she can long for literary self-expression yet submit to Capote’s strong edits for the sake of a stardom she will eventually spurn.
That makes even less sense.
“You do all the fact. I do the fiction,” Buddy repeatedly tells Nelle, defining their division of labor. But beyond spirited literary discussion and those doubtful edits, almost nothing actually happens in this two-act play, which takes place over a single day and night in the early spring of 1959.
The time shifts are signaled by Charles S. Reece’s lighting and John Kolbinski’s splendid sound design, which gives us midday birdsong and evening cicadas. Costume designer Susan Benitez dresses her characters in somewhat mismatched clothes, highlighted by Buddy’s faux-silk striped pajamas and Japanese-inspired robe.
"The Gift," through March 19 at Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $30-$35. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.