Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tennessee Times Two

My first exposure to the work of Tennessee Williams came in 1966, when the New York City Center Drama Company mounted a revival of his 1951 hit play, The Rose Tattoo, starring Maureen Stapleton, Harry Guardino, Maria Tucci, and Christopher Walken. Since then, I've met more of the passionately conflicted women Williams created as well as the restless men who bedeviled them.

While many have wondered what kind of music ran through the playwright's mind as he was writing, two American composers have supplied their own interpretations. In 1971, Lee Hoiby's operatic adaptation of Summer and Smoke received its world premiere from the St. Paul Opera. In September 1998, André Previn's adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire received its world premiere from the San Francisco Opera with soprano Renée Fleming as Blanche DuBois and Rodney Gilfry as Stanley Kowalski.

Williams never shied away from controversial topics. A dropped condom provides a powerful plot point in The Rose Tattoo, just as Brick's alcoholism and latent homosexuality haunt 1955's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Cannibalism and a threatened lobotomy lie at the core of 1958's Suddenly, Last Summer, while accusations of statutory rape against a former priest and and the Nazi anthems sung by a group of German tourists add spark to 1961's The Night of the Iguana.

Earlier this week I had the rare opportunity to attend two Tennessee Williams plays in back-to-back performances.  The first drama was -- and remains -- one the most important works in the playwright's catalog. The other, written midway through his Broadway and Hollywood careers, is a much lesser, almost unknown work.

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Until recently, I had no idea that, when Tennessee Williams wrote his original screenplay for The Gentleman Caller, he imagined Ethel Barrymore as Amanda and Judy Garland as Laura.  In 1944, when The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago, Laurette Taylor created the role of Amanda Wingfield.

Anyone who has seen Rick McKay's 2004 documentary entitled Broadway: The Golden Age, By the Legends Who Were There won't easily forget the segment in which legendary actresses recall how profoundly they were inspired by Laurette Taylor. Writing about the actress shortly after her death in 1949, Tennessee Williams stated that:
"It is our immeasurable loss that Laurette Taylor's performances were not preserved on the modern screen. The same is true of Duse and Bernhardt, with whom her name belongs. Their glory survives in the testimony and inspiration of those who saw them. Too many people have been too deeply moved by the gift of Laurette Taylor for that to disappear from us. There was a radiance about her art which I can compare only to the greatest lines of poetry, and which gave me the same shock of revelation as if the air about us had been momentarily broken through by light from some clear space beyond us. I feel now -- as I have always felt -- that a whole career of writing for the theatre is rewarded enough by having created one good part for a great actress. Having created a part for Laurette Taylor is a reward I find sufficient for all the effort that went before and any that may come after."
Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield in the
original production of The Glass Menagerie

One of the strange challenges left by Taylor's imprint on the role of Amanda is that many productions of The Glass Menagerie are judged by the star power of the actress who inhabits the role. My greatest experience with the play was in 1965 as I watched a severely overweight Maureen Stapleton cast a magic spell over the audience in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre as her Amanda recalled a youth in which her days were often filled with visits from gentleman callers.

In preparing for the Marin Theatre Company's production of The Glass Menagerie, director Jasson Minadakis was determined to take a much different approach to the text. As he explains:
"We have been so loyal to the realism of these 20th century plays that we’re just getting to the point where people are starting to think about the work in the poetic sense, like the way we look at Shakespeare’s work. We’re moving away from realism and trying to find certain elements that, perhaps, are more poetically true within the story than realism would allow. There are elements of this production that are more stylized than what people may be used to seeing with Glass Menagerie, but I think it’s going to bring a different emphasis to the play than what you’ve seen before. The sentimentality of it will be replaced by a more powerful sense of the grounding emotions.
Many productions have done a disservice to the play by making it a wistful memory play when really it’s a very strong exploration of a family fighting to maintain itself. I was incredibly interested in exploring the poverty of the family, which translated into not using props, not having a lot of furniture, not having a lot of stuff. That also ties in with the idea of this being a memory play. The only props, the only things that the audience sees in the play are the pieces that stand out in Tom’s memory. I asked each of the designers to make a list of the props they felt were absolutely essential and it came down to less than a dozen items that were necessary to tell the story."
Tom (Nick Pelczar) and Amanda Wingfield (Sherman Fracher)
in The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Using a skeletal set (designed by Kat Conley with lighting by Ben Wilhelm) whose stairs and landings hint at the fire escape referenced in the text, Minadakis has managed to lessen the spotlight on Amanda and refocus the audience's attention on each character's belief system:
  • Tom (Nicholas Pelczar) wishes he could believe that things would get better but knows there is no future for him if he remains in St. Louis.
  • Amanda (Sherman Fracher) is desperate to believe that her daughter can find a man who will provide Laura (and possibly her mother) with financial and emotional security.
  • Laura (Anna Bullard) can't let herself believe that she is pretty or has any right to any kind of a future.
  • Jim (Craig Marker) believes wholeheartedly in the power of improved communication skills to boost self esteem (for himself, for Laura, and for anyone who is open to changing their situation).

This production was the first time I had seen Amanda portrayed as clearly desperate (and almost manic) rather than a fading flower of the old South who kept fluttering about in a total state of denial. While most people see The Glass Menagerie as Tom's story, it was surprising to see how easily Jim O'Connor's optimism brought an intoxicating life force into an apartment whose inhabitants had been drained dry of any reason to keep going.

Jim O'Connor (Craig Marker) and Laura Wingfield (Anna Bullard)
in Act II of The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Minadakis has chosen to add a peripatetic trumpet player (Andre Wilke), who moves around upstage as the restless spirit of Amanda's long-departed husband.  As the director explains:
"Whenever we hear music, it's because it’s Tom’s memory (Tom is filtering all the sound through this one instrument). I wanted the trumpet player to be onstage the whole time, underscoring everything. The trumpet has a lonely, melancholy sound that I think is so perfect for this play. I wanted a harder edge in a world so aggressive and so nasty. The muted trumpet felt like the perfect balance of isolation and loneliness."
Andrew Wilke's trumpet player haunts the Marin Theatre Company's
production of The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

While Minadakis has developed a tightly-knit ensemble, I was most impressed with Craig Marker's radiant portrayal of the Gentleman Caller. Performances of The Glass Menagerie continue through December 18 at Marin Theatre Company (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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As a playwright, Tennessee Williams always had a special talent for exploiting mental illness and alluding to a once-safe concept of the world that was evaporating from the lives of his characters. In 1960's
Period of Adjustment, he came up with two doozies.

Long before post-traumatic stress disorder was identified and diagnosed by the medical community, one of his two Korean War veterans suffers relentlessly from "the shakes." The other lives in a recently-built suburban home that keeps suffering noisy, earthquake-like tremors.

The shakiness of the foundation to the Bates house is reflected in the shakiness of the couple's marriage (Anyone for symbolism?). Dorothea (Maggie Mason), a homely young woman from a rich family, married Ralph Bates (Johnny Moreno) knowing full well that she was the lure for him to gain access to her father's money.

If things seem rotten in the state of Denmark, Christmas Eve in High Point, North Carolina is seething with resentment. Although Ralph has continually tried to satisfy his wife's emotional and sexual needs, he has just quit his job working for her boorish father and plans to skip town on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, an unexpected visit from his closest military pal, George Haverstick (Patrick Alparone), has thrown a wrench into Ralph's flight plan.

Ralph (Johnny Moreno) and George (Patrick Alparone) in
Period of Adjustment (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As it turns out, Ralph and Dorothea are not the only unhappy couple. After being hospitalized for months, George finally married Isabel (MacKenzie Meehan), one of the nurses who took care of him. Having quit their jobs, they're now driving around the country on a poorly-conceived and woefully-executed honeymoon.

George (Patrick Alparone) and his wife Isabel (Mackenzie Meehan)
in Period of Adjustment (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

George and Isabel's initial night of marital lust proved to be a dud. Faced with a woman who doesn't seem interested in sex, George wants out of their marriage. Isabel desperately wants to go home to her parents in Texas, but finds Ralph to be a sympathetic listener.

Meanwhile, Mr. McGillicuddy (Joe Madero) and his wife (Jean Forsman) want to remove all of their daughter's belongings from Ralph's house before he can sell anything.  If at all possible, Dorothea wants to make up with her husband.

Johnny Moreno and Maggie Mason in Period of Adjustment
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

As with any Tennessee Williams play, things are seldom what they seem. Back during the Korean War, George and Ralph used to patronize Asian prostitutes whenever they needed to score some "gash" (a term probably unfamiliar to today's politically correct crowd). Ralph, who had a better understanding of how to please a woman, used to cover for the fact that George would often sit upstairs with a prostitute, trying to teach her English instead of having sex.

Whether George's attacks of the shakes are due to feelings of sexual inadequacy or latent homosexuality is never made clear. However, the initial horseplay when the two men are first reunited makes it evident to the audience that, during the war, they became the very best of buddies.

Ralph (Johnny Moreno) and George (Patrick Alparone) in
Period of Adjustment (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

Using a clean suburban set designed by Nina BallBill English has directed Period of Adjustment with a keen sense of the play's comic moments as well as its creeping suburban tragedy. Tatjana Genser's costumes and the sound design by Cliff Caruthers help to frame 1958's Christmas Eve with spanking clean looks that are easily undermined by a steady flow of alcohol and some ominous house tremors.

Many plays by Williams are built on a foundation of sexual frustration and violence. At the Broadway opening of Period of Adjustment, Tennessee's younger brother, Dakin, boasted that "not a single person was raped, castrated, lynched, committed, or even eaten!" Nevertheless, as I watched the SFPlayhouse production of Period of Adjustment unfold, I found myself reacting to several things in the text that had absolutely nothing to do with the play itself:
  • In Act I, whenever Isabel would address Ralph as "Mr. Bates," I found myself wondering if Williams was having fun teasing repressed audiences of the 1950s with the phonetic proximity of "Mister Bates" to "masturbates." I also wondered if Isabel would get stabbed to death (Hitchcock style) in the shower of the Bates home.
  • In Act II, whenever Dorothea said the word "Ralph" I found myself hearing Audrey Meadows' voice from The Honeymooners.
  • As I watched Patrick Alparone's jittery portrayal of a young military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, I wondered if the character's mental instability and potential for violence was something that titillated the playwright (who had a well-known predilection for rough trade).
All that, of course, is wild speculation. SFPlayhouse's production is exceptionally well cast and directed. I was especially pleased to see Johnny Moreno (an underutilized Bay area talent) back onstage where he belongs.

Performance of Period of Adjustment continue through January 14 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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