Hartford Stage’s ambitious attempt to forgo the great expense of establishing a second, smaller house for more intimate productions, begun this season and named, in a somewhat ungainly phrase, “Stage, Too,” has had mixed results. The second play, showing through this January, was to have been something called Dragon Country (the name of the author is not at hand), but it failed to appear. In its place is a one-man reading of a selection from Tennessee Williams’s letters, leading up to the eve of completion of A Streetcar Named Desire: Letters from Tennessee: A Distant Country Called Youth. The haste and desperation of this substitution are indicated by the fact that seven separate readers have had to be lined up over the run from January 10 through 27 — the last of whom is Mark Lamos, Hartford Stage’s erstwhile artistic director. That’s not to say there are only has-beens and wannabes in this cohort of secular saviors. The first was Richard Thomas, of Little House on the Prairie TV series fame, well-known to Hartford Stage audiences for his Hamlet, Richard III, and, most recently, the central role (a clergyman whose name escapes me) in Albee’s Tiny Alice; The third was Andrew McCarthy, whom we’ve seen as the younger son (names are at a premium while I recover from jet lag) in Long Day’s Journey and Tom in Glass Menagerie [See the entry for 27 April 2001, above]. Tonight it was Campbell Scott, new to Hartford stage but well-known for his Long Day’s Journey with Robards and Dewhurst and, as I recall, a featured role in Mamet’s film The Spanish Prisoner. He’s good, and he does a good genteel Southern accent, breaking out of character only once, when he missed catching in his mouth an olive tossed in the air from a martini glass. The text has been adapted by Steve Lawson, who goes way back with the Williamstown Festival (used to be just “Summer”!) Theatre, and Lawson is also the director.
It’s very nicely and attractively produced. Three music stands (the lyre sort) ranged over about fifteen or eighteen feet, the outer two at standing height, the middle one at sitting height with a chair behind it. Scripts on each stand, ordered so that the reader can move from left to middle to right and back again and keep the chronology intact. (The source is Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 1: 1920–1945, ed. Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler.) Behind the speaker, large projections, on a screen full size on the back wall, of family photos, chosen to illustrate the various recipients of the letters. A good range of spot lighting in various shades and hues is complemented by a similar range of lighting of the projection wall from instruments ranged along the floor. Very nicely and tastefully done, with enough variety to enhance the various moods of the letters but never obtrusive. We expect this kind of technical sophistication and thoughtfulness from Hartford Stage, and we get it.
Oh, the letters: they are quite wonderful. The reader is given the vast advantage of Williams’s characteristic voice, tender, brutally frank, sardonic, and outrageous, by turns. A portrait emerges of a man buffeted a lot by fortune and nearly stricken by the failure of his first full-length play, Battle of Angels (1940), but intensely serious about his writerly art and totally unwilling to sell out to any and all contrary forces at work in society. One phrase among many stays with me: “Writing is a constant hunt for a quarry that always remains somewhat elusive.” That has the ring of truth, as does all of Williams’s best work. Having just come from a very satisfying revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in London, this was a pleasant and thought-provoking way of revisiting, for the length of an hour and a quarter, Williams’s steadfast belief that adversity and struggle are the elements in a writer’s life that turn dross into gold. Somehow, the Hartford Stage artistic director, Michael Wilson, has managed to turn difficulty into at least a modest success, as he pursues his idea of an all-American (not in the patriotic, but in the authentic sense) season.