Aunt Della’s house stood far out on Highway 68. The driveway of soft beige sand, something of a rarity for that part of the state, snaked through the short, stiff grass of the treeless yard before it curved around back of the small, square one-story farmhouse. Though the fake brick pattern of its old, rolled asphalt siding was meant to mimic the prouder houses back in town, the cracks, uneven waves and haphazard patches of the sheeted covering made her home look like a poorly wrapped and badly damaged Christmas gift instead. She lived alone there for the last years of her life.

I bring it up because, for a little over an hour last Saturday afternoon, during the world premiere of Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession at the Theater of the American South Festival in Wilson, set designer Chris Bernier and lighting designer Matthew Adelson actually made me feel like I was back there, inside a room I hadn’t visited in 30 years.

Which raises a logical question, under the circumstances: If a set alone can break your heart, should you be reviewing the play that takes place on it? Consider the following, and judge accordingly.

Bernier’s achievement here is as notable and as pitch-perfect in its way as actor Quinn Hawkesworth’s interpretation of Lucy Marsden, in Allan Gurganus and Jane Holding’s new adaptation of Gurganus’ 1989 bestseller. Still, in doing so, his design takes considerable liberties with the stated setting of this play. For better and worse, this is no recent development among the staged adaptations of Gurganus’ most famous work. Martin Tahse’s ill-starred adaptation, which closed the same night it opened on Broadway in 2003, improbably placed Ms. Marsden on stageof all placesas an equally improbable professional storyteller doing a benefit to put a new roof on the assisted living home where she lived (see “Post Mortem,” Indy, Nov. 26, 2003). Clearly, Tahse’s frame was a radical (and ill-advised) overcompensation for the literary dramaand theatrical stasisof a tale largely told from the bed- and table-side of a woman who called herself “the last living veteran of the last living veteran” of the Civil War.

But if Bernier’s set design takes us to a darker place than the short-lived Broadway version (no great loss there), in the process it ultimately takes us to a significantly darker place than the Gurganus novel itself. Is that bad in itself? Not necessarily. Still, such a deliberate departure from the existing text raises, among others, the question of necessity. If the original confronted and ultimately overcame the darkness, why does a different conclusion carry here? For dramatic funding?

Director Jerome Davis is certainly no stranger to the deeper hues of the human palette. Here, Bernier indulges those proclivities, perhaps to an extreme. Bernier’s vision of the mid-’80s “retirement home” listed as the setting recalls the shameful brand of dilapidated nursing facilities that have warehoused the infirmand challenged the conscienceof the state for decades to the present day.

If they don’t convey a humble two-room shack, alone far out on an old state road, Lucy’s lodgings suggest a poorly converted motel room as we first spy it in the early hours before dawn. The combinations of deep blue, white and black at the window of the minuscule kitchen suggests a winter’s morning, with snow outdoors. The outdoor blue seems a direct descendent of the shade scarcely concealed beneath the sad whitewash used to paint the walls of this abode.

A small gray upholstered chair stands on a similarly cheap throw rug next to an inexpensive floor lamp. Olive drab curtains hang lifelessly from a single metal curtain rod next to the bed. A handmade quilt gone sepia with time lies atop Lucy’s single bed. The entire room appears to have been furnished in early Family Dollar. A white plastic rotary phone hangs on the wall adjacent to an avocado fridge wedged beside an avocado stove. All three huddle behind a kitchen counter too tiny to permit more than one dinerand too tall to make a dining table accessible to the one high-backed wooden chair that sits beside it.

No, nothing speaks of comfort in this place, or the intervention of any caring outside soul. And the starkness of Bernier’s facilities and Adelson’s lights predisposes a similar severity in Lucy’s confessions. For something rouses her from slumber, well before dawn, almost as if for matins. (A warning for those concerned: Plot spoilers appear below.)

But a different story is told here in the weakest light. And any intimacy suggested by the amber hues is abruptly chilled when we finally conclude that no one’s in the room with her, at any point, as she offers her full confession.

In my notes I first compared Adelson’s opening lights to the lowered ones which grace Mme. Tussaud’s famous chamber of horrors. Indeed, there is a certain horror here as well. We fear the place is hers alone, that no one ever comes to visit. We all but groan inside at the thought that Lucy’s account comes from a woman who has never forgiven herself after killing her husband in self-defense. We particularly dread the possibility that Lucy begins every morning with a similar recital, and not this one alone.

After his impressive early atmospherics, Adelson’s lights flare from time to time, inexplicably illuminating points on stage or a cross-beam over the set, while the light of predawn remained constant outside Lucy’s window. (At times, the choices Adelson and Bernier make draw attention more to themselves than to the world of the performance.) Still, many of the choices here speak more to the kind of self-incarcerating world created by Samuel Beckett than the one Allan Gurganus created nearly 20 years ago. Truly, we’re left shaken by this small world of guilt and self-deprivation. But at the end, those who know the novel are left with one important question: why?

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Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession
Theater of the American South Festival

Through June 3
Boykin Center
Wilson, NC