Long before there were fifty shades of anything, a little book called “Peyton Place” unbuttoned a generation of American readers in the late fifties. “Peyton Place” by Grace Metalious was a huge best-seller, despite being banned in many places for indecency. Critics called the novel literary trash, condemning it and its author for exposing small-town life through taboo subject matters like sex, abortion and incest. While tame by today’s standards, “Peyton Place” still has an arousing and disturbing quality and both new and loyal fans will be pleased by City Lit Theater’s ambitious adaptation written and directed by Paul Edwards.
In a little New England town, teenage Allison MacKenzie (Catherine Gillespie) questions whether or not the community is as wholesome as it lets on. A sterile relationship with her mother Constance (Sheila Willis) makes things uncomfortable as Allison begins the first pangs of puberty amidst the prudish town gossip told by colorful residents, mostly concerning the sexual goings-on of others. In stilted but shocking scenes, this story has all the classic soap-opera moments that make an audience gasp and stay entirely engaged.
Though Edwards’ script struggles from bouts of clunkiness, Metalious’ overarching theme of sexual awakening remains intact, maybe even more clear in this adaptation. Edwards isn’t afraid of getting to the grittiness of the story and for the most part stays pretty faithful. The inconsistent and largely unnecessary narration and voice-overs muddle the structure a bit, but in no way distract from the bawdiness of this saucy tale.
Performances run the gamut here unfortunately. Gillespie expresses the capacity for charming naïveté and grown-up haughtiness. Willis, as Allison’s mother, has the clearest understanding of the time period and it shows in her poise and graceful speeches. Of the many characters being played by the same actors, only a few are captured in a convincing way. The ensemble appears to be having fun with the camp, but as a result, the sincerity suffers. The occasional wrestling match between Selena Cross (Sara Renee Gilbert) and her stepfather Lucas (David Skvarla) mostly come off as clownish, as do most of the scenes pertaining to the Cross clan. Jeremy Myers as Allison’s somewhat abused love interest, Norman, is a refreshing surprise. Scenes with his overbearing mother and Allison provide some of the more genuine moments of the play.
The question City Lit’s production of “Peyton Place” poses is whether or not Metalious’ novel is still relevant today. While not a perfect production, City Lit succeeds in modernizing the piece and raising it above the level of shlock fiction, with Edwards’ adaptation pointing to the deeper elements of the novel, like its feminism and the consequences of keeping sex a secret from your children, that are often overlooked by critics. (John J. Accrocco)
At City Lit, 1020 West Bryn Mawr, (773)293-3682. Through March 30.