Emphatic, atmospheric adaptation of Lanford Wilson's lyrical play is ambitious but falls just short.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lanford Wilson's somber, haunting stage piece "The Rimers of Eldritch" is a marvel of theatre presentation but due to its ambitious writing structure, multi-focus conversations and constant shifting of time both back and forth, I was concerned as to how well it would adapt to film. Wilson was sparked to write this piece early in his career during the racial upheaval of the 60s. Though ethnic bigotry is not the main emphasis here, the story easily serves as a microcosm of small town Bible-belt prejudice and its devastating effects on its inhabitants after a series of events leads to a crippled teenage girl being raped and the town's chief undesirable shot to death. The events leading up to the shooting and the accompanying trial sorely exposes the detrimental mindset of a town sadly untouched by time, progress and human growth.
I was first enthralled by this brilliant ensemble piece in the late 70s (my college, Florida State University, in Tallahassee, put on the production) and it remains one of my all-time favorites. The lowbudget TV film, which co-stars Rue McClanahan, Frances Sternhagen and an up-and-coming Susan Sarandon, nicely captures the stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere of this rundown, decaying town, with townfolk whose minds and spirits have been frozen with inbred hate and fear.
The "rimers" (which is an antiquated term for "freeze" or "frost") of this town are well served for the most part. Rue McClanahan is a standout as Cora Groves, a lonely, middle-aged cafe owner castigated by town gossip for taking in a handsome drifter and hired hand. Joanna Roos as senile Mary Winrod too has several fine moments as a predictor of the deadly chain of events to come. Will Hare's decrepit, muttering derelict Skelly Mannor has a ripe monologue from the play that has been unjustly pared down, but still manages to convey his social outcast with penetrating ramblings. James Staley comes off well as Driver Jr., a naive, fresh-faced youth who ultimately yields to the town's pressing dogmatism to save his own skin. Young and pretty Susan Sarandon shows extreme signs of a yet untapped talent as a spoiled, wanton, capricious schoolgirl Patsy Johnson, desperate to break away from her small town constrictions any which way she can. And Kate Harrington and Frances Sternhagen as a pair of unrestrained tongue-waggers are aptly set up as the town's narrow-minded Greek chorus.
The stage origins of "The Rimers of Eldritch" are quite apparent, however, and the TV film loses some of its impact and shock by its faithfulness to the writing and its sometimes erratic attempt to preserve the past/present time shifts. Some scenes feel almost as static, chaotic and/or aimless as the characters involved, while a couple of the performances, notably Carol Williard's sometimes overwrought interpretation of crippled Eva Jackson, are stuck in wistful, flowery passages that worked brilliantly on stage but don't ring true here. Vance Sorrells, who plays Sarandon's pesky, 'good ol' boy' brother, provides the unobtrusive score with down-home songs and guitar playing.
Despite this, the film, directed by Davey Marlin-Jones, should ultimately be perceived as an admirable attempt to visibly preserve one of Wilson's finest works. I would, however, be very interested in seeing another more potent, inventive attempt at making "The Rimers of Eldritch" come alive on film. Director Mike Nichols recently did it with another supposedly unfilmable TV film "Angels in America," so I have hope.
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