Southern Comforts: Authors’ friendship explored in ‘The Gift’

Southern Comforts: Authors’ friendship explored in ‘The Gift’

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The friendship between two literary icons comes to life on stage with Walnut Street Theatre’s production of “The Gift” through March 19. 

Set on a porch in a small town in Alabama, two friends reconnect. One of them is Buddy, an internationally renowned author embarking on a new idea for his next novel. Nelle is a talented writer, struggling with bringing her story to life. The two writers fall back on their long-standing friendship to help each other move forward and find their place in history.

The Buddy and Nelle characters are based on authors Truman Capote (“In Cold Blood,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) and Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”).

“There’s no mistaking who they are,” said Warren Kelley, who plays Buddy. “Harper Lee called [Capote] Buddy and she went by Nell. If anybody has done any reading on them, they know exactly who they are. [Switches to Capote’s voice] I’m talking like this and there’s no mistaking who he is. [Switches back to his voice] They’re calling each other the nicknames they’ve called each other since they were children.”

Capote and his singular style of speaking and carrying himself have been portrayed on film, television and on the stage many times by many actors. Kelley said it was a considerable challenge to find a way to play Capote that didn’t come across as a shallow parody.

“When you play somebody that is a real person, there are always challenges,” he said. “In this particular case, he was so idiosyncratic. Anyone can do some kind of imitation. What is the most challenging is finding my own authentic version of him. Both the director and the playwright were very specific about that. It was not to be an imitation, although many people say, ‘Oh, you sound and look exactly like him.’ I look nothing like him actually in real life. I sound like him as much as I sound like him. I’m doing certain aspects of his very, very well-known vocal pattern and timbre. But what was most challenging is finding my version of him that did not feel in any way a condescension to who he was, or seemed like a comment on him or that there was any judgment from the actor about who he was. He was a genius so my judgment of him was not a negative one anyway.”

Kelley added that he found the key to zeroing in on Capote’s style and mannerisms while studying his life story.

“I’ve told this story to a couple of people and I’ve done a lot of research,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of really well-known people. When you play somebody famous, there is a certain pressure. In the research I did, I read this wonderful biography called ‘Capote.’ In it early on, they interviewed his second-grade teacher who, after [Capote] won the Pulitzer, she heard him interviewed on the radio and was taken aback that he sounded exactly the same as he sounded in the second grade. And that was a tremendous clue for me. So it wasn’t about being effeminate. It wasn’t about being Southern. It wasn’t about that lisp. It was about the boy that was left by the side of the road by that mother. That’s how I arrived at it. Who is he really and how does that affect the way we speak? We all have a certain timbre in our voice and is that a reflection of who we are in some way? Or is it just where we’re from regionally in the country? Or a combination of both?”

One of the things “The Gift” speculates about and shines a light on is the controversial idea that Capote helped Lee write “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Kelley said it’s a testament to how influential these two authors were that people are still interested in delving into the genesis of one of their most significant contributions to history.  

“I’ve played Atticus Finch twice so I really know that material from both sides,” Kelley said. “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is one of the most beloved novels of the last century as is that character. ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ are two of the great novels of the last century and they couldn’t be less alike. If they had done nothing else, and she did almost nothing else that people saw, they would be enough for anybody. Those are great works of art that hold up and stand the test of time. In terms of who they were to each other, that’s really compelling, even though their relationship became rocky later in life. The fact they met in kindergarten and had this tremendous bond because they were both misfits … They handled that and their response to it and their functioning in the world very, very differently. They were both gay. One was very, very out when it was not the fashion to be out and one was very closeted. And yet they were incredibly bound to each other, not only in terms of their childhood devotion — almost brother and sister — but also in terms of their love of writing and their incredible ability to write descriptive prose about the world around them.”

Kelley said whether you buy into the theory that Capote helped write “To Kill a Mockingbird” or not, “The Gift” at its heart is really about an enduring friendship. 

“It’s a beautiful play,” he said. “It’s about these two famous people but it’s also really about friendship, loyalty and what we do for each other when we’re in need. It really hits people on a whole bunch of levels. It’s about literary figures and it’s pretty wonderful.” 

Walnut Street Theatre presents “The Gift” through March 19 at Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St. For more information, call 215-574-3550 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.


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