Stephen King is a highly successful novelist whose ability to interweave tension, horror and fantasy produces best sellers that are looked down on from the heights of “artistic” literature. I’m beginning to have serious doubts about this division: I have no doubt that King is a superb practitioner of his craft who knows how to tell a story and whose work addresses the big questions of literature and life.
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“The Green Mile” – initially a serial novel (King released it in six monthly installments in 1996) that was adapted for the screen in 1999 – is set in the space between life and death, on death row in a U.S. prison during the Depression era. It’s a story not of this time or place (even if executions, official and unofficial, are an issue that’s floating threateningly in the air in Israel).
This is a subject and setting that is difficult to mount convincingly, let alone rivetingly, on the stage. But the Be’er Sheva Theater production of the play, directed by Irad Rubinstein (who also adapted the novel), does so brilliantly. What starts out as a drama between prison wardens and inmates – grim, frightening, violent and macabre – gradually evolves into a fantasy whose morbidity morphs into the entrancing, and in which themes of good and bad, justice and injustice, become palpable on stage and ineluctably draw in the viewer.
On the one hand, there are elements of reality – prison bars, an electric chair (aka the “toaster”), uniformed guards, and murderers being executed and undergoing convulsions. At the same time, though, we are witness to a theatrical endeavor that creates a stage illusion and exposes its underlying artificiality. The lighting design, by Ziv Voloshin, is almost another character in the play. Rubinstein maneuvers skillfully amid all this, forging atmosphere and rhythm, and creating an enthralling atmosphere of horror, pain, enchantment and beauty. He is certainly one of the most exciting directors of the past year in Israel.
Two other stories hover over the plot. One is John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” in the person of the threatening and charming prisoner John Coffey, who evokes Steinbeck’s Lennie Small (there’s also a mouse in the plot, Mr. Jingles – a delightful stage prop). The other story is the essential Christian narrative of one who takes on himself the world’s suffering and goes to his death because he cannot bear the pain of this existence.
The cast is uniformly excellent in an abundance of small roles (Tom Graziani, Oren Cohen, Nir Menki, Icho Avital, Ora Meirson, Tamar Levin). But the play revolves around two actors who deliver truly superb performances: Amir Krief as the death row supervisor; and Ofer Zohar in the lead role, who carries an aura of potent, threatening, thrilling magic. It’s certainly his best role of the ones I’ve seen him in – a performance that is engraved in the memory.
I went to the play wondering why an Israeli theater would choose to produce a fantasy on the macabre subject of executions. But I found myself completely swept up by a story of people caught in a vicious situation, who are able to extract beauty and delicacy from filth and horror.