Review: ‘The Gift’ at Walnut Street Theatre

The fun, and perhaps coyness, of The Gift, Will Stutts’ gentle and constantly engaging play at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio through March 19th, is the way it uses the personae of writers Truman Capote and Harper Lee without ever mentioning the names that made them familiar to readers and the general public.

(Throughout The Gift, the play’s two characters are called Buddy and Nelle, Capote’s childhood moniker and Lee’s actual first name.)

Warren Kelley and Susan Riley Stevens. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Warren Kelley and Susan Riley Stevens. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The triumph, and perhaps splendor, of The Gift is it wouldn’t make a dime’s difference if the figures populating the Walnut stage were totally unidentifiable as two of the leading lights of 20th century literature, or that you pick up sundry references to the geneses of Capote’s In Cold Blood (to which Lee indeed made major contributions), or Lee’s continually best-selling To Kill a Mockingbird (which Capote may have helped frame and definitely helped get published). The Gift is a well-structured, wittily written, involving piece that would have had laudatory merit if Buddy, Nelle, their relationship, and situations had sprung completely from Stutts’s imagination.

That’s because so much that is admirable in the play does come from Stutts’ imagination and ingenuity as a storyteller. Details about Capote and Lee are well-known. Heck, Truman couldn’t keep a secret if someone held a needle to his eye. Stutts had to envision a meeting between then in which In Cold Blood and To Kill a Mockingbird were involved, keep it from being too precious or looking as if its only raison d’ être was to borrow luster from two legendary figures, and create dialogue that would be worthy of his characters while entertaining his audience.

Bingo on all counts.

The achievement, and perhaps blessing, of The Gift is it’s a real play. It tells a charming story; it introduces likeable, complicated characters and puts them in frequent conflict without involving violence or one another of the character’s taking fashionable offense to another’s comments; and it’s filled with well-crafted scenes, showing instead of telling its story, as theater should.

Best of all is the dialogue. Stutts wasn’t on Lee’s Alabama back porch to overhear a series of confabs between her and Capote. He made up their conversations and contretemps. He made up their jokes and sharp observations. He kept his script in line with the characters and keeps all consistent.

Warren Kelley and Susan Riley Stevens. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Warren Kelley and Susan Riley Stevens. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Nelle is an organized, meticulous writer, a journalist who happens to have a poetic way of describing a sleepy Southern street or customs endemic to a particular place or town. Buddy is the guy who misses deadline and keeps editors wondering when they are going to get the stories they commissioned. Nelle represents disciplined writing, a craft becoming a profession, while Buddy is the artiste, the person whose genius, flair, and exquisite composition is well-recognized but who needs to be chained to his Underwood to produce one publishable sentence. Stutts finds these contrasts and makes them entertaining.

Angst and contrived drama are happily missing from The Gift. So is self-conscious overacting. Director Greg Wood keeps his production as neat, fresh, orderly, and shrewdly comical as Stutts keeps his script. Wood opts for smoothness and the easy, if sometimes interrupted, cordiality between friends for his pace. Wood’s touch is subtle, but he finds myriad ways of displaying his characters’ telltale traits and creates some quiet yet hilarious comic moments.

Warren Kelley, as Buddy, suggests Capote’s movements, manners, and unmistakable voice without exaggerating them or begging for attention. Susan Riley Stevens has more leeway as Nelle, Harper Lee being as well-known as a recluse as she is as a writer, but she stays beautifully in the framework of Nelle’s character, giving us a woman of discipline, integrity, and contentment that makes the perfect foil for Buddy the show-off and Buddy the literary merchandiser who needs to wear the biggest, flashiest feather in any parade.

Even if you don’t know The Gift’s Buddy and Nelle are Capote and Lee, you know there’s going to be some writing going on by the sturdy, unelectrified, vintage Underwood typewriter sitting on the table of Andrew Thompson’s gorgeous Southern porch full of whittled, cheerfully-colored posts. Besides being scrumptiously lovely and inviting, Thompson’s set inspires awe for looking so big and grand in the Independence Studio’s compact black box space. It is so smartly imposing, it made me feel as if I were in a much bigger house.

Susan Benitez’s costumes make Nelle look smart, comfortable, and respectable in tasteful, tailored, but typical dresses a young woman might wear anywhere in the late 1950s. Benitez allows Buddy more expression, but in one long scene Buddy wears a combination of bleached-out hues that are too garish to suit his character.

John Kolbonski’s sound design brings in the frogs, owls, and other creatures of a rural Southern night. Charles S. Reece’s lighting nicely shows how the whites of Thompson’s porch change as the day wends.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Susan Riley Stevens and Warren Kelley. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Susan Riley Stevens and Warren Kelley. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Gift plays through March 19, 2017, at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 982-2787. or purchase them online.