Reading the work of the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector often feels like diving into a pool of dark water, where the fear of drowning doesn’t deter the desire to bathe in mystery. For those willing to take the plunge, her writings come with many rewards: reminders that someone has shared your deepest fears, passions, even seemingly inhuman thoughts.
It’s a quality she understood. As she wrote in the 1977 novel “The Hour of the Star”: “Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”
While theatrical adaptations of her work are popular in Brazil, the delicately violent power of her writing might be the reason her novels have rarely been turned into plays in English. They’re too dense and surreal, almost dreamlike in nature.
The need to preserve this ethereal quality is what makes the New Stage Theater Company’s adaptation of Lispector’s “Near to the Wild Heart,” an admirable attempt at taming the beast.
Published in 1943, when she was 23, the partly-autobiographical stream-of-consciousness novel is a fractured portrait of the upper-middle-class Joana, cutting between her present life and her childhood, as she tries to grasp what it is to be a woman in a restrictive society.
Heavily relying on video, the director and adapter Ildiko Nemeth has focused on some of the novel’s most tangible passages to create 90 minutes of sensuous, though uneven, entertainment.
And in Sarah Lemp, who gives life to Joana as both a girl and a woman, she has an expert lead performer. When Joana overhears her auntie (Gina Bonati) describe her as “a viper,” Lemp’s body contorts like a child who’s both about to throw a tantrum and attempt to grow wings and fly away.
When her father (Ken Raboy) declares to his friend (Theodore Bouloukos) that Joana “hasn’t the slightest idea about everything,” Lemp contracts, as if wanting to disappear. When the father continues by declaring, “She told me that when she grows up she is going to be a hero,” her eyes widen, as if thinking that maybe she is being seen after all.
It’s quite telling that Joana is the only character dressed completely in white, while the men and women in her story don colorful suits and dresses with bold patterns (the vibrant costumes are by Jessica Sofia Mitrani and Hailey De Jardins). After all, she is merely a screen for them to project what they fear and desire.
Through the use of impressionistic lighting (by Federico Restrepo) and video projections (also by Mitrani), Nemeth evokes a synesthetic space. That’s appropriate, given Joana describes herself as someone who thinks in music. When we learn of Joana’s passion for poetry, a view of the ocean in high contrast black and white takes on the quality of ink caressing paper.
The production is less successful when it deploys obvious imagery. A female android looking at its hands in puzzlement is projected against a starry sky when Joana feels most detached, while a ghostly apparition (Lisa Giobbi) sleepwalks in the background when Joana longs for her dead mother.
In her only televised interview, shot a few months before her death at 56, Lispector explains she had recently learned about her own mother’s knack for writing poetry. One gets a sense this finally made her feel connected to another woman, an unfulfilled longing that permeates all of “Near to the Wild Heart.”
Sitting through the play made me wish Joana was invited to the party in “Fefu and Her Friends,” Maria Irene Fornés’ own study of the ways womanhood is debated and challenged, now playing in Brooklyn. If not complete contentment, at least there Joana would feel near to other wild hearts, finally allowed to roam free.