Fragile first play imagines Faulkner's last fling Faulkner's Bicycle Play by Heather McDonald. Directed by Julian Webber.

This summer the recently established American Theater Exchange is presenting the work of three prestigious resident institutional companies at Off Broadway's Joyce Theater. The project has been launched with the Yale Repertory Theatre production of ``Faulkner's Bicycle,'' a fragile first play by Canadian writer Heather McDonald. The scene is William Faulkner's hometown, Oxford, Miss., in 1962, the last year of his life. Miss McDonald divides the focus of her long, multi-scened one-acter between the dislocations within a female household and the fictitious relationship that develops between 35-year-old Claire (Cara Duff-MacCormick) and the 65-year-old Faulkner (Addison Powell).

Claire's bleak existence is spent caring for mentally deteriorating Mama (Kim Hunter) and, by way of needed diversion, mowing neighbors' lawns. A discordant force enters the precariously balanced domestic state with the return from New York of prodigal daughter Jett (Tessie Hogan), whose journalistic success appears to have hit a bad patch. Jett constructs sailboats that progress from models to full-scale craft as the play progresses.

Faulkner's periodic bicycle rides across the stage provide the play with some welcome movement. Having rescued the vehicle from a local pond in which a drunken Faulkner had abandoned it, Claire writes him a letter and maneuvers a meeting with the reclusive Oxford celebrity. She mends a punctured tire. The odd couple bike together, and Faulkner teaches Claire how to pelt passers-by with apples from a treetop perch. They scandalize the town. The tale ends with Faulkner's funeral.

As a whimsical study of decay and eccentricity in the Southern Gothic shadows, ``Faulkner's Bicycle'' emerges as an impressionistic piece by a sensitive writer, whose inspirations in this instance range all the way from Faulkner himself to Tennessee Williams and Beth Henley. Among other episodes, Miss McDonald has written a tea party scene laced with funny cross-conversations. She has also included some unpleasantly explicit details connected with Mama's senility.

Under Julian Webber's direction, the play is sympathetically acted by Miss Duff-MacCormick and Miss Hogan as the siblings, Miss Hunter as Mama, and Mr. Powell as the pivotal Faulkner. Pamela Peterson's attic setting provides a dark void that transforms itself into the incidental locales required for these scattered rummagings and flashbacks. The production has been suitably costumed by Scott Bradley; Mary Louise Geiger has provided pools of light for the passing scenes. Chopin composed the incidental piano music.

``Faulkner's Bicycle,'' which premi`ered at the Yale Rep's Winterfest V, is the latest work by this eminent resident company to reach New York. ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,'' a current Broadway prizewinner, is a Yale Rep origination, as were such previous New York imports as Athol Fugard's ``A Lesson From Aloes'' and ``Master Harold . . . and the boys.''

This first offering by the American Theater Exchange is scheduled to run through June 22. It will be followed by Houston's Alley Theatre production of ``Season's Greetings,'' by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (July 6-27), and ``In the Belly of the Beast,'' based on Jack Abbott's prison letters to Norman Mailer (Aug. 8-31). The script was originally adapted by Adrian Hall, director of the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., and further adapted by Robert Woodruff. It will be presented at the Joyce by the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles in association with Seymour Morgenstern.

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