Andrew DeRycke (left), Tracy Hyland, Carol Roscoe and Kevin McKeon, in the title story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” presented by Book-It Theatre. Photo by John Ulman
Andrew DeRycke (left), Tracy Hyland, Carol Roscoe and Kevin McKeon, in the title story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” presented by Book-It Theatre. Photo by John Ulman

Book-It Repertory Theatre invites us in to watch four of author Raymond Carver’s short stories come alive on stage in its new production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (premiered as part of Book-It’s 1998-1999 season).

Book-It founder/co-artistic director Jane Jones also directs the new version, which she adapted. It’s obvious that she feels a strong connection to Carver’s work: She is true to Carver’s bare-bones prose and his beloved brevity.

I have been a fan of Carver since our friendship in the mid-‘70s, and his work is dear to my heart. This probably colored my view of this production, which I loved.

Along with the title story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981), Book-It presents “The Student’s Wife” (1964), “Intimacy” (1986) and “Cathedral” (1983),

Four talented actors double-up on roles: Andrew DeRycke (Nick, Mike, Him), Kevin McKeon (Mel, Writer, Robert), Tracy Hyland (Laura, Nan, Her) and Carol Roscoe (Terri, Wife).

In “What We Talk About,” two couples in their second marriage sit around a table with an ice bucket and a bottle of gin. McKeon’s rich, melodious voice softens Mel’s abrasive tone, as he obsesses over the definition of love. Ironically, he is a heart surgeon. Mel thinks he has the answer, but the drunker he gets, the more he exposes his weaknesses.

Mel’s wife, Terri (a feisty Roscoe), interrupts his diatribe. She is convinced that her former lover’s physical and verbal abuse was a form of love, and she doesn’t care if her husband disagrees. But the more they talk about love, the less they seem to know.

Nick and Laura represent the touchy-feely phase of love. As Nick, Derycke moves the story ahead with narration while remaining part of it. Hyland portrays Laura with perfect sweetness: She adores her husband and vice versa.

Night approaches, and shadows form on the shuttered Venetian blinds. The gin is gone, as is the conversation. Only silence remains. Carver leaves us hanging. He has nothing more to say.

Art imitating life

Born in Oregon and raised in Yakima, Wash., Carver married his high school sweetheart, Maryann Burk. Like his father before him, Carver became an alcoholic. He wrote; Maryann worked. They were nomads, constantly running from bill collectors. This gritty lifestyle would eventually become fodder for Carver’s short stories.

“The Student’s Wife” and “Intimacy” are most likely drawn from his marriage to Burk. The first reflects loneliness, isolation and longing. The second was written some 20 years later, after their marriage had decayed into rubble.

In “The Student’s Wife,” we meet Mike (Derycke) and Nan (Hyland) in their bedroom. He reads, while she sleeps. Then she wakes up and starts speaking, while he tries to sleep. She tries to engage him in conversation. As she talks, he disappears farther and farther under the covers. Instead of hugging him, she hugs her pillow. She gets up, opens the door and gazes out with longing.

“Intimacy” skips ahead two decades. The characters don’t have names; they are known as Writer and Wife. Four years after their divorce, a writer (McKeon) shows up at his ex-wife’s door without an invitation. She (Roscoe) turns off her Hoover and goes ballistic. His reappearance sparks a stream-of-consciousness tirade, exposing the despair she still harbors from his abandonment. He asks for forgiveness. She closes the door and turns on the Hoover.

In “Cathedral,” written a few years after he became sober, Carver shifts away from pain and despair. His protagonist/narrator (Derycke) voices his disapproval when his wife (Hyland) invites her former boss (McKeon), who is blind, to visit. A few drinks and puffs of marijuana later, an epiphany occurs. The two men bond over the concept of a cathedral. The narrator experiences a glimmer of hope. But it takes a blind man to teach a sighted man to see for the first time.

A bleaker view

There is a saying that you need to suffer to be a great artist. Without his years of drunken desperation, Carver might never have written his celebrated body of work.

He has been hailed as the Chekov of our modern times, for his ability to involve the reader in small stories with understated but profound implications.
But there is a difference: Chekhov had a fondness for his characters and their foibles; Carver offers a bleaker view. In Carver country, people are never perfect; they are injured, flawed and sometimes broken.

If you haven’t read Carver’s stories, maybe you have seen the Oscar-winning film “Birdman,” based on “What We Talk About.” The film begins with a quote from one of Carver’s poems.

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

This is also the epitaph on Carver’s gravestone.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” runs through Oct. 25 at the Center Theatre at the Armory in Seattle Center. For ticket information, call (206) 216-0833 or go online to