The audience enters and on two sides of the small black triangular playing area where are actors standing silently in semi darkness; standing center is the actor playing Luke Jackson.
Cool Hand Luke is set in the early 1950’s, at a Florida correctional facility’s chain gang. Rebellious Luke Jackson is a decorated Korean War veteran who has just begun serving a two-year sentence for stealing parking meters. We meet the other inmates, the guards, and the imperious Boss Godfrey. Luke’s nickname, Cool Hand, comes from his poker skills.
Director Joe Tantalo’s striking, minimalist production has no scenery and virtually no props. It marvelously relies on purely theatrical imaginative devices. Mr. Tantalo’s accomplished, choreographic staging and the performances achieved yield often intense experiences.
The actors playing inmates mime slinging pickaxes to shatter rocks, and also mime when a snake attacks. Set designer Maruti Evans’ perfect lighting design conjures the various locations and time periods. Ien DeNio’s inventive sound design has the buzzing of flies, among numerous effects, to strongly suggest the sense of place. Danny Blackburn and Bryce Hodgson collaborated on the evocatively moody incidental score.
Published in 1965, Donn Pearce’s novel was based on his own experiences of being an inmate at such facility. In 1967, he and Frank R. Pierson, adapted it into a screenplay for director Stuart Rosenberg. Starring Paul Newman in an iconic performance as the title role, and George Kennedy as the convict leader, who received The Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the film was very successful.
Drawing attention for it’s allegorical Christian imagery, tapping into the counter culture and mounting anti-Vietnam War sentiment, the film became a cultural touchstone. Like Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Cool Hand Luke, became a popular tragic anti-hero symbolically battling The Establishment.
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” drawled by character actor Strother Martin as the warden in the film, is one of the all-time great movie quotes. It is not spoken in this play, as it was not in the novel, and was written by Frank R. Pierson for the film.
This stage script by Emma Reeves very skillfully captures the work’s gritty realistic tone, plot and characters in an artfully condensed but faithful treatment.
Veering from sly to simply straightforward, but always animated, the scruffy, sinewy Lawrence Jansen is commanding as Luke. Not attempting to channel Paul Newman, he creates a lively original characterization with subtle dashes of Matthew McConaughey. The memorable betting event where Luke eats 50 hard-boiled eggs is briefly and mesmerizingly enacted here with Mr. Jansen’s physical suggestiveness combined with the creative lighting and staging.
Wearing dark glasses, a cowboy hat, carrying a cane and sometimes a mimed rifle, standing rigidly, and using a deep malevolent voice, Nick Paglino offers a powerfully chilling portrait of Southern authority as Boss Godfrey.
Mike Jansen, Lars Drew, Brett Warnke, Jason Bragg Stanley, Jarrod Zayas, and Ken King, comprise the excellent ensemble of convicts and other brief roles.
Julia Torres makes a great impression with her atmospheric blues singing at various places in the theater, and as an African-American woman who aids Luke during one of his escapes. Youthful Kirstina Doelling’s charming presence illuminates several small roles including Luke’s mother.
Orli Nativ’s simple costumes of grimy tank tops, Western wear, and old-fashioned dresses, authentically convey the look of the characters’ time and locale.
This production is presented by The Godlight Theatre Company that was founded in 1994. Part of its mission is to, “bring new and underperformed texts to the stage by creating original adaptations of modern classical literature from the 20th and 21st centuries.”
With this admirable goal, and despite how well realized this incarnation of Cool Hand Luke is, the pacing periodically slows down. That has more to do with the structure of the source material than flaws in the presentation. Still, overall it is compelling, and is a tribute to free spirited mavericks combatting authority.
Cool Hand Luke (through May 31, 2015)
The Godlight Theatre Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running tine: 85 minutes with no intermission