Concise and elegant, the prose of Ernest Hemingway in some ways resembles particularly beautiful stage directions. The sparse words of his characters, likewise, are striking in their economy, and also in their intimation of something deep coursing just beneath the verbal riffles. Behind the restraint of Hemingway’s phrases are enough fraught human tensions to stretch the non-verbal sinews of the finest actors, and it’s long been a fantasy of mine to adapt some of his short stories for the stage. Although his work has appeared on the screen with varying degrees of success, I think the starkness and tense intimacy of his stories would lend themselves particularly well to a small stage. I’ve taken the liberty, here, of casting the principals for four Hemingway classics.
TENSE + INTIMATE: The master’s work on stage.
“Cross Country Snow” is a vignette about two college-aged buddies, George and Nick, taking a wistful last ski trip together in the Swiss Alps, before going their separate ways for what might be a long time. I choose Nate Amadon and Will Stewart, respectively, for George and Nick, as both of them do well with both candid, boyish rapport and quieter introspection. After skiing a run (which could be open to interesting directorial interpretation), they take a break in a warm inn, where a waitress in a blue apron brings them wine and apple strudel, woodcutters enter with a flurry of sleighbells and stomped boots, and George and Nick talk about the future in a timeless, bittersweet way. In few words, they tell each other what they will and won’t do, and what they do and do not know.
George and Nick turn up again, along with a couple of abrasive characters in bowler hats, in “The Killers.” Al and Max, the dumb thugs of the title, elbow in to a diner, where George is tending the counter. I’d love to watch Paul Haley and Tony Reilly play these guys with plenty of slapstick as they get mad about it being too early for the dinner menu, fumble some clumsy insults, and string up Nick and the cook in the kitchen. They’re actually in town to take out an old Swedish prizefighter named Ole. The task of alerting the Swede later falls to Nick, who finds him on his bed, fully aware of what’s coming, and resigned to wait for it with a hopeless dignity that I think Michael Howard would do great justice. It’s this quality that rattles Nick, for whom the experience becomes a particularly harrowing brush with mortality.
In “Hills Like White Elephants,” a young American couple (I suggest Ariel Francoeur and Graham Allen) wait at a different sort of crossroads, both literal and figural, which happens to be in Spain, outside a hot train station along the Ebro River valley. Childish in some ways and jaded in others, these young people have been traveling about Europe with no particular agenda or constraints, and have just discovered something that changes everything: although we never hear the words “pregnant,” “child,” or “abortion,” we gradually understand their dilemma. There in the station they drink beer and anisette, banter jumpily, and verge upon breaking, but do not. Neither the situation nor the tension is resolved, however, and by the couple’s tones and omissions, by what they look at and the way they drink, we know that even after the train takes them away, and even after they are discreetly relieved of their “trouble,” the easy rhythms of their youth will have been derailed for good.