Casting is everything, especially when you’re mounting a production based on iconic source material. Director Rick Scheideman has brought “The Graduate” to the Historic Iao Theater and he’s done so with an excellent ensemble of performers, each of whom are perfect match for their roles. While the inevitable tug of war between knowing the classic material and experiencing it fresh will be a factor for most audiences, Scheideman has taken a notably cinematic story and made it arresting in its theatricality.
Elisha Cullins stars as Benjamin, a recent college graduate whose boredom and crippling uncertainty leads to a tryst with his neighbor, Mrs. Robinson (played by Marsi Smith). The affair is ongoing and adds an additional complication when the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (played by Julia Schwentor) becomes a newfound obsession for Benjamin. Cue the Simon and Garfunkel tunes…
Cullins is an ideal Benjamin, allowing the character’s vulnerability (his awkward uncertainty, naiveté and inability to handle complications) to always be visible. While Benjamin is the protagonist and the “hero” of the piece, he’s not always likeable or rational. Cullins never shies away from Benjamin’s complex state of mind or the character’s willingness to figuratively throw himself off a bridge. Smith, a local theater treasure, is fantastic as Mrs. Robinson. It’s a joy witnessing her take on such a legendary character. Fittingly. Smith owns the role (and the stage) whenever she appears.
A unique touch I loved about Smith’s performance- she avoids the melancholy and suburbanite sadness of Anne Bancroft’s performance and takes the character in an entirely fresh direction. Smith’s Mrs. Robinson is less a haunted soul and more of a controlling opportunist. There’s an awakening in Smith’s take on the character that resonates even more than carnality- an impish self destructive streak.
Schwentor is a perfect choice for Elaine and connects with the character’s newfound strengths and lifelong insecurities. David Negaard and Kimberly Dobson are superb as Benjamin’s parents, finding the right note of light satire without succumbing to caricatures. A big standout is Lou Young, simply terrific as Mr. Robinson- he gets the cadence and approach to the role (something of a Polonius-like balance of playing both a fool and an endearing, sad figure) and is tremendously funny.
There’s great character turns and shining bit parts throughout. My favorites include Magdalena Walaszek’s seen-it-all desk clerk, Bradmundo Breitbach’s hilarious, Dean Jones-like bit as a priest and, playing a barfly, an unrecognizable and effortlessly sleazy Joel Agnew. Scheideman clearly encouraged inventive work from his game cast.
The performances aren’t in tandem with the movie, as only the dialogue gives flashes of recollection (it’s hard to hear “You’re trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson” and avoid thinking back to Dustin Hoffman and Bancroft). Otherwise, the zest and innovation the cast exudes frequently overcomes the audience’s awareness with the material.
I have mixed feelings about this stage adaptation by Terry Johnson, which effectively translates the work to theater and includes several new scenes that flesh out the characters; it also literalizes a number of moments and character arches that were previously made ambiguous. I was especially intrigued by a sad, intimate moment shared by Elaine and her mother (Smith and Schwentor find exactly the right tone for this scene). Still, the new material, particularly the much altered final scene, has a pat, crowd-pleasing quality to it that stands as a drastic contrast to everything that came before it.
If nothing else, “The Graduate” has always haunted me for the way its characters are in a state of self-imposed limbo. Johnson’s new material (adapted from Charles Webb’s novel and Buck Henry’s classic screenplay) certainly expands the possibilities of the characters and their choices but, to be really picky, I prefer this story ending with an ellipses and a question mark, not a shiny “THE END.” Still, as a different take on perhaps-overly familiar material, this new interpretation at least has the distinction of taking chances at the story-level. As for the visible stage craft out in the open, the actors are served by a top notch production team.
Vicki and Jessi Nelson’s costumes are not only period-correct but illuminate the character’s inner lives. Case in point: based on her style of dress, you can sense the idealism of the budding counter-culture movement rising within Elaine (whereas that quality seems dormant in Benjamin, in both dress and worldview. Caro Walker’s sets are stunning- to describe them is to undermine their beauty, but here goes: imagine massive windows, placed carefully on different parts of the stage, with lighting within that could suggest either the sun setting on Benjamin’s innocence or our voyeurism. The latter interpretation may be key to the design- after all, we’re spying on these characters during their intimate moments of indiscretion.
Speaking of intimate moments, Scheideman and his actors handle the nudity and simulated sex scene (comical and brief as it is) tastefully, though this is still the equivalent of a PG-13 level-production. Taking children is not advised.
“The Graduate” is brisk and frisky, a naughty comedy for grown-ups and anyone who has still no idea what they want to be when they grow up.
The Graduate plays at The Historic Iao Theater through October 13th at the Historic Iao Theater. Tickets can be purchased by calling 808-242-6969 or by going to mauionstage.com.