I just finished watching the 4 part mini-series on HBO of Olive Kitteridge. I guess it was true to the novel, by Elizabeth Strout, but I don't remember the book touching me quite so deeply and making me feel quite so sad. It is likely that I brought my own sadness and feelings of depression to the viewing, which predisposed my reactions to the TV series' and to the the main character, Olive Kitteridge. The story's themes and those of my own life merged, making me feel them with more intensity than I had planned for. In the final scene Olive is lying next to Jack Kennison, whom she meets after both of their spouses have died and both are feeling bereft, alone and without much reason to wake up in the morning. She has just been diverted from suicide and in that moment, lying beside Jack, she sees and admits to herself that she was responsible for creating the distance between herself and her son. She never meant to do so, but her inability to show love and affection and her over-capacity to judge and to be critical did not allow her to see and accept her son for he was, and being the child, the son could never accept Olive for who she was. Wow, re-reading this first paragraph, perhaps I did not need to be predisposed to sadness and depression, it was all there, loud and clear, for the taking.
Olive and Henry's marriage is one neither of convenience nor deep love, yet you know in the depths of their relationship, there lies love and you see them trod on through the years conveniently, if not also with complication and sorrows. Olive knows her husband loves her and wouldn't do anything to hurt her, but for her, this feels like weakness. Olive has an affair of sorts (apparently never consummated) and it is not clear what she sees in him, that is lacking in Henry, but what is clear is that with this other man she feels truer to herself and thus is able to be more loving and affectionate. So sad that we live in such a rat race of circles, never ending, dizzying circles that keep us going round and round, but get us nowhere, so we stay in pain.
In the series, Psycho-therapy wins a place at the table. Although Olive predictably sees therapy as a means for weak people to find excuses, her son, is surely helped by it, in the end. He does not completely overcome the injuries he felt he suffered growing up, but it helps him to deal with his feelings so he can move forward with a woman who shares his sensibilities and with whom he has a relatively productive, loving relationship. However, though Chris may have forgiven his mother within the therapy dynamic, he still cannot deal with the reality of his mother in the flesh. I recognize this. I recognize this to the point of tears. One can love their children, parents, family members in general with all their heart and vice-versa, but still never find peace with them.
There is a scene in particular with Olive, her son, his wife and their 2 children (from other relationships his wife had in the past), that for me was extraordinarily effective and emotionally exhausting. Hostility is simmering below the surface,while above, the mood is kept relatively breezy, despite negative insinuations and sarcasm. Finally Olive, who is fully participating in the underpinnings of the hostility, can take it no longer and states she is going home early from this visit she is making to her son's new home in NYC. Christopher does not try to dissuade her, nor offer to take her to the airport, rather asks his wife to find the phone number for a taxi. Christopher's wife tries to explain to Olive how difficult it is and has always been for Chris to deal with her mood swings. But what Christopher and his wife don't see is what leads to the change of mood in Olive. The scene hits so close to home that it was painful to watch. The family sees the change in mood. They do not see what they or others might have said or done to inflict the wound, to cause the pain, to provoke the hurt. They only see the end result. And what's more, even if they did see what generated the hurt, they are unable to understand why it was so.
I will have to return to the book to remember it better. I do recall that the book was written in several separate narratives, each almost it's own short story, with Olive as the thread, winding through the many entities and pulling it together as a novel. The mini-series is told as a continuous narrative, which in and of itself is fine, but loses an aspect of the novel which added interest and had made it unique. I suppose due to time limitations, this was inevitable. I seem to recall the book being somewhat lighter, perhaps having more humor to break the tension, less harshness in the character of Olive. I'm not sure. I may not be recalling it correctly. I remember Olive being extremely cantankerous, but not so depressed and totally filled with pain. Perhaps I'd just forgotten how she was unable to reach outside of her pain in order to bring some positive feelings to others in her company. Her husband may have received something positive, at times, but not much. He was, however, able to find relief in interactions with others, in other parts of his life, as with Denise, the young girl who had come to work with him in his Pharmacy. They each allowed the other to be themselves and give what they had to give to the other, despite their flaws. But, then Denise ends up marrying a man, after having lost her true love to a hunting accident (a scene that screams for more gun control and rethinking of hunting in modern times), who seems at first so quiet and unassuming, even a bit slow-minded, but, who, after marriage to Denise, ends up bossing her, putting her down and taking full advantage of her timidity, becoming as this trait was in her, in an almost emotionally abusive way.
Finally, the perfectly up-side of the HBO drama was the portrayal by the actors of the main characters in the story.Two of my all time favorite actors, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins played the two main roles. Who could ever forget Frances McDormand in Fargo and I just loved Richard Jenkins in a movie I blogged about, The Visitor. Francis McDormand was inspired as Olive Kitteridge, though I pictured her as plumper, but no less frumpy. The pathos shown by both actors in their parts, as well as in the aging process (I believe there was a 25 year span) was amazing. And it was a pleasant surprise to see Bill Murray play Jack Kennison, who so beautifully met and matched Olive's cantankerousness. He was a splendid choice. Overall it was a splendid mini-series. It is always heartening when in making a movie or TV series, they do justice to the book on which it is based. Kudos to Olive Kitteridge, the novel and Olive Kitteridge, the HBO mini-series.
The 7 wonderful actors were all new to me, with the exception of Alice Ripley, whom I absolutely loved in her Tony award winning performance as Diana in the 2009 production, "Next To Normal". In the book, "A Christmas Memory", the story is told by Buddy (based on a young Truman Capote), about himself and his relationship with his much older,distant cousin, Sook. Their relationship is the center of both the book and the play, and it is its heart and soul. Alice Ripley did such a beautifully subtle interpretation of cousin Sook in her pure feelings of love and friendship for Buddy, as well as her innocence, which seems to others in the family as childlike, not responsible, but, in reality, it is she who was responsible for giving her friend, Buddy, the assurance that there was someone in his life who looked after him and cared for and about him. I also really liked how Ripley's Sook dealt with her expression of her religion, in a straightforward, honest and non-confrontational way. It almost made me want to believe like she did.
In this production, the other characters who are more or less just referenced in the book, are brought to life to support and expand on the core relationship between Buddy and Sook. I just loved the adult Buddy, played by Ashley Robinson. He was not only believable as the man you would imagine young Buddy becomes, but also as Truman Capote, whom Buddy did become.There was something in his smile and the twinkle in his eyes, behind those round, black glasses, that brought authenticity to his role as the adult Buddy and as Capote, himself. and that bonded the characters of Buddy, young and older. The boy who plays Young Buddy was also true to the character in Capote's small tender book. This young actor, Silvano Spagnuolo's performance, was fresh and real and filled with an innocence and wonderment that I think was much more present in a child of 1933 than one in 2014. I am not sure that it is so easy for a young child actor to accomplish all of this, but, accomplish it, he did. And what's more, I couldn't take my eyes off of him because he so closely resembled the son of a nephew (hint-hint Eran and Daniel).
Sook's sister, Jennie, also Buddy's cousin, pretty much rules the roost in this spreading old house in Monroeville, Alabama, made warm and "homey" by Sook, yet cold and unyielding by Jennie. Jennie is as strict and demanding as her sister, Sook, is loving and easy-going. However,there is a wonderful song sung by Nancy Hess, the actress who plays Jennie, that besides for being a lovely song, serves to make her character into a more dimensional person, allowing the viewer to see beyond her harsh rigidness and into her heart's desire for young Buddy to become his greater self. I didn't want to see Buddy sent off to a military school and I am sure it was pure hell for the real Truman Capote, as a sensitive, creative young boy, but this song helped me to understand that what was behind Jennie's decision was, in her own way, love.
Virginia Ann Woodruff plays the family's maid, Anna who acts as a conduit between the present time of the play,1955 and the past, 1933, In the present, 1955, the adult Buddy, comes back to the homestead out of nostalgia and to conclude some concrete business and an aging Anna immediately bonds with the grown up Buddy, whom she hadn't seen for so many years. Her songs and choreography add ragtime and blues to the musical mix. Samuel Cohen is wonderful as three very different characters in the play, adding integrity and humor to the production. The final character is the young girl who we know to be in real life, Harper Lee, Buddy's neighbor and friend. They have a kind of coy, love-hate relationship that boys and girls of a certain age have. Taylor Richardson plays Nelly Harper with vivacity and charm.
In conclusion, I am grateful first and foremost that Truman Capote, originally Truman Streckful Persons (I would have changed that name too) saw fit to write the little gem of a book, called "A Christmas Memory" in 1956. I am grateful that The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City saw fit to make the book into a gem of a Play With Music in 2014. And I am grateful that I have a sister who shares my sensibilities, such that she appreciates both of these gems as much as I do. Until "fruitcake weather" comes again...I am a grateful reader and theater attendee...
"Imagine a morning in late November"
~ and Sherril Smoger-Kessous