“September has rounded the corner from summer and humidity to that little bit of nip in the air,” actor Joel Vig said from his Connecticut home.
That changes when he brings his one-man play “Truman Talks Nelle Harper Lee” to still-muggy Monroeville, Alabama’s historic courthouse, Sept. 27 – 29. His 90-minute, one-act original work details the symbiosis between two of the 20th century’s most acclaimed authors, their side-by-side childhood in the small town, their contrasting-yet-complementary personalities and peculiar relationship.
“There will be people, I’m quite sure, in the audience who are related to Truman. There will be Lee relations and people she went to church with, so it’s both terrifying and exhilarating,” Vig said of the latest in his line of Capote-based works.
How does a University of North Dakota alum with a lengthy show-business resume end up in a sleepy hamlet below Dixie’s Black Belt? Through providence.
First, Vig met Capote while in college. The school regularly hosted writers’ visits — Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orzo, et al. — but Capote’s stratospheric celebrity ratcheted buzz.
“When he walked out on this bare stage with a podium and spoke, it was amazing. He had this magnetic appeal, this strange little man with this very odd voice telling a story, which was hardly a traditional Christmas story,” Vig recalled.
The experience stayed with Vig through his life in theater, as “a designer, a craftsperson, a stage manager, a performer and a director.” He worked with the New York-based Theatre Guild for 30 years alongside award-winning stars like Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Richard Kiley and Tammy Grimes.
“I was in the company of ‘Hairspray’ on Broadway. I played all the men over 40 who weren’t married to Harvey Fierstein,” Vig said, chuckling.
After hearing Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal tell an audience about perseverance in her tragic life — “when she was done, the only sound was this quiet weeping from the audience; but still she said her favorite day is tomorrow” — he was inspired. Vig acquired a script produced for stage production of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and reshaped it for Neal and himself. They performed around the nation before playing the Monroeville courthouse in 2008.
“[We] had the thrill of having Nelle Harper Lee come to the performance and talking with her before and after,” Vig said.
The show stirred performance offers on the Southern Literary Trail and in area festivals built around Capote contemporaries Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams. Mining YouTube for archival footage and devouring George Plimpton’s book on Capote, he became a wellspring of lore.
The lifelong friendship between Monroeville’s most celebrated prodigies intrigued Vig. Both were precocious oddballs for the rural town in Mobile’s outer orbit.
In other ways, they differed. Capote was small and tender while Lee was a tomboy. His family was eccentric and erratic. Hers was stalwart, anchored by her attorney father’s local esteem.
“The two of them would slip into the courthouse, go upstairs and watch trials through the spindles of the railing. That got their imaginations going as writers and both had major works built around legal cases,” Vig said.
Lee went to college while Capote brushed off formal education.
“People asked if he was going to college and he said, ‘what for? I know how to spell. What else does a writer need?’” Vig said, slipping into his Capote voice like an old cardigan.
Capote fostered Lee’s decision to eschew law school for literature. His connections brought her Manhattan patronage and made “To Kill A Mockingbird” possible. In turn, she coaxed cooperation from Kansas locals Capote alienated while researching his magnum opus.
“I truly believe if ‘In Cold Blood’ had happened at all without Nelle, it probably would have just been a fairly lengthy magazine article,” Vig said.
From that alliance, the new play was born. Its premise is a surprise party for Lee where Capote holds court while awaiting the birthday gal.
“I ran across a quote Truman had, that his favorite thing in the world to do was talk. If he had to choose between talking and writing he just didn’t know which he would choose,” Vig said.
The fundraiser begins at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday. Evening tickets are $40, $30 for Monroe County Museum members and $15 for students. Matinee tickets are $30, $25 for museum members and $15 for students.
A wine and cheese reception is included in the evening price.
For advance tickets, call the Monroe County Heritage Museum at 251-575-7433.
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