Playwright Chris Hainsworth is well aware that his world-premiere stage adaptation of Midnight Cowboy for Lifeline Theatre has a huge reputation to live up tonamely director John Schlesinger's Academy Award-winning 1969 film that starred Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.
But Hainsworth, a Jeff-nominee for his 2014 Lifeline adaptation of Monstrous Regiment, stresses that he's adapting the original 1965 novel of Midnight Cowboy by the late gay author James Leo Herlihy. It differs in many ways from Waldo Salt's screenplay for Midnight Cowboy.
"I actually ended up reading the book several years before I saw the movie. The book had stayed with me for a long time and when I did finally see the movie, as much as I appreciated the film itself, there was a lot of the book that I missed," Hainsworth said. "When I joined Lifeline in 2010, I thought since we do literary adaptations, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to finally do an adaptation that incorporated all those characters that I missed."
Midnight Cowboy tells the story of a rural Texan named Joe Buck who heads to New York City to become a hustler servicing wealthy women. But he fails at his goal and barely survives off of gay clients. Joe also develops a friendship with the crippled con man Rico "Ratso" Rizzo, another dreamer whose big-city ambitions also go unfulfilled.
"In the movie, Joe's past before he steps off the bus into New York is generally glossed over and only alluded to," Hainsworth said. "To me, the things in Joe's life that made him this person to undergo this undertaking to New York are interesting because it's a story about loneliness and how lonely people can often use people who are just as lonely as they are."
Hainsworth keeps his adaptation in the 1960s to reflect the enormous changes that were going on in America. Yet he also wanted to also focus on the lingering repression of earlier decades, especially when dealing with the characters' views on homosexuality.
"Joe Buck, more so in the book than in the movie, his sexuality is certainly fluid in that he is attracted to both men and women," Hainsworth said. "There's also a character in the book called 'Towny' who is this person living this life of quiet desperation because he is unable to be the person who he is because of the way society is at the time."
After Hainsworth traced the rights to the novel to a priest living in Morocco a few years ago, he submitted a Midnight Cowboy draft for approval. Hainsworth also had to negotiate with the rights holders to the United Artists film by promising not to use any material from it.
"My adaptation either comes 100 percent from the book or my imagination in order to compress a 300-page book down to two hours," Hainsworth said. "This is the first time that I have adapted anything that has such an iconic cultural attachment to it."
Given the fact that Lifeline Theatre is largely known for adapting classic public domain novels by the likes of Jane Austen or the BrontÃ« sisters, Hainsworth was nervous that the subject matter of Midnight Cowboy might be controversial for their core audiences. When the film of Midnight Cowboy was originally released, it was rated "X" in large part to its gay content and gritty depiction of life on the streets.
But Hainsworth says the film of Midnight Cowboy could easily be screened unedited on cable TV nowadays. He was also heartened by an unofficial poll he conducted recently with a group of Lifeline Theatre subscribers who attended a company "sneak peek" event.
"Primarily audiences who come to our sneak peaks are patrons who have been with us for 20 to 30 years. Most of the audience was in their 60s and I asked the question, 'Who saw this movie when it came out?' And 98 percent of them raised their hands," Hainsworth said. "We have a tendency to judge what our audiences are going to think or feel, but in this case the people who saw the movie of Midnight Cowboy or might have read the book are my age or younger when it came out."
And though Hainsworth isn't gay ( he's married to fellow Lifeline company member Katie McLean Hainsworth ), he hopes that his take on Midnight Cowboy will attract and be accepted by LGBTQ audiences.
"It's a very modern look at sexuality," said Hainsworth about his adaptation. "But it keeps its historic context in mind."
Midnight Cowboy continues in previews until Sunday, Feb. 28, with an official opening at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29, at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Regular-run performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays until April 10. Preview tickets are $20, and regular-run tickets are $40, $30 for seniors and $20 for students; call 773-761-4477 or visit www.lifelinetheatre.com .