Small World

Pleasures of the "Flesh"

"I wanted to write about the decidedly nontraditional families I saw around me, many of which were composed of people whose biological families couldn't or wouldn't contain them because they were gay or because they had had drug problems," says Michael Cunningham. "And I wanted to write about a repressed housewife who achieves some sort of transcendence."

Sorry if it strains your entertainment budget, but if you want to catch a great piece of Northwest theater in the next few days, your best bet is in Oregon, where it's the closing weekend of Portland Center Stage's adaptation of Cunningham's novel Flesh and Blood. If you've read the triumphant family saga that questions—and enlarges—the meaning of tradition and think it too mammoth to fit comfortably beneath a proscenium, prepare to be surprised; if you've never read it, prepare to be moved.

Flesh and Blood is the novel that preceded Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize- winning The Hours. As elegant as that book is, however, Flesh is better. The story covers the personal transformations of four generations of an American family without stumbling over its own aspirations, propelled as much by Cunningham's stunningly observed empathy for the stifled torment of "average" Americans as it is by sheer expanse.

Playwright Peter Gaitens, who also gives a fine performance as beleaguered gay son Will Stassos, has maintained both the intimacy and the majesty of the novel in his stirring adaptation. He's turned the book's varied voices into a chorus of human yearning, to which director Chris Coleman and his cast give nearly perfect tone—Caren Browning's graceful turn as housewife Mary Stassos embraces every nuance of a sheltered woman's journey toward a larger humanity. The show admirably articulates love, sexuality, and the often brutal hybrids of each.

Not everything in this first full production is working yet. Cunningham's sweeping lyricism creeps perilously close to affectation when separated from the heightened world of the page; the feverish deliriums of hippie daughter Zoe begin to sound like a sauced Tennessee Williams when spoken aloud in a theater. Anyone who loved the novel might also miss some of the more extended passages of interior contemplation that made the reading experience feel like a private revelation.

Portland Center Stage should be lauded, however, for attempting such an ambitious work. The show is a grand opportunity to discover just how dazzlingly Cunningham's work itself achieves the transcendence he's granted his characters.

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