Hartford Stage. Directed by the Artistic Director, Michael Wilson. (Running 22 May – 22 June)
This production, one in a continuing annual series Wilson calls his “Williams marathon,” really sparkles. It’s very physical in some ways. Wilson and his production crew have emphasized the hot, sticky, humid atmosphere of a run-down, seedy, cliff top, beach-side hotel in Mexico. Sweat gleams on faces and (often bare) chests, and much mopping of head and neck with already soaking wet handkerchiefs goes on. The set is the exterior of the hotel, with a series of double louvered doors ranged along the porch of the hotel at an angle 15° off the vertical, enough for us to be able to see a few feet into the room if the doors are open. The main playing area is open, with stepped platforms rising four or six inches to a higher point upstage, where the exit down the steep hill (out of sight, of course) begins and from which one can see a limitless and, in the night of the second act, a fantastic full moon, ringed in moisture.
I’ve never read this play and have seen only one other production of it, some years ago, at the National Theatre in London, a truly awful attempt at vintage Williams by actors who wouldn’t have known the difference between Texan and Tyne-side English. This production is worlds better and makes me realize that, despite some typical Williams-like excesses and occasional longueurs, it is a very, very good play, with the range of varied, beautifully and clearly contrasted eccentrics for characters that is reminiscent of Camino Real and that is Williams’s trademark as a dramatist. Williams draws maladjusted characters better than any other American dramatist, and he has a genius for leading them into fateful, life-defining collisions with one another.
The three — and it’s three, not two — chief exemplars of this dramaturgical technique are Maxine Fauk, the recently widowed and very sexy proprietor of the Costa Verde Hotel; Hannah Jelker, an aging “New England spinster,” as she styles herself, penniless and accompanied by her grandfather, Jonathan Coffin (“Nonno”), a failing “ninety-seven years young” poet; and the Reverend Shannon, a defrocked Episcopal priest, currently a leader of a bus tour out of Texas and chronically on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Shannon is perhaps the most overtly guilt-ridden character in all of Williams’s plays — and that’s saying something. He spends much of the play resisting the blandishments of the sex-starved, but coarse and shallow Maxine, who likes to parade around with her shirt completely unbuttoned, exposing a well filled out black bra and exuding easy sensuality, proffered rum-coco in hand. The better angel — this is a south-of-the-border updated version of the old medieval psychomachia, after all — is the much more spiritual Hannah Jelker, a quick sketch artist and watercolorist, seemingly directionless and inveterately itinerant, whose preferred beverage is not rum but poppy-seed tea. She presses a full cup of this anodyne brew on Shannon, as evening darkness looms in Act II, and it eventually has a soothing, truth-inducing effect.
As played by Amalee Jefferies (whom we have seen before at Hartford Stage, as Blanche Dubois, if memory serves), this is a remarkable character; Jefferies’s portrait of this wise, immensely yet unobtrusively self-reliant woman, with virtually no resources except her own strength of character, is utterly convincing and memorable. I will carry away from this production a vivid image of her in a beautiful red-flowered long kimono, her blonde hair rolled back from her forehead à la japonaise, gliding, almost, along the stage as she serves Shannon a full cup of the bitter liquid he has promised to drink as part of the truth-telling agreement they have made.
The other image I will carry away is of James Colby as Shannon, a profoundly restless dynamo of nervous energy, roped as a prisoner into the hammock well downstage right, struggling ineffectively until, later in Act II, he suddenly discovers that he can free himself, and meanwhile being plied with tea and — not exactly sympathy, though Jefferies’s Hannah is sympathetic and understanding, but something more like wisdom.
The fact of Shannon’s being tied up to save him from himself — he has threatened to swim the 8,000 miles to China if left to his own devices — bears an obvious analogy, in Williams’s Gothic quasi-allegorical poetic, to the iguana captured early on by Maxine’s two houseboys, carried up stage in a gyrating sack, and imprisoned out of sight with the rope around its neck. Like the iguana, Shannon is a highly instinctual, untamed creature, long on physical energy and short on self-knowledge. As it turns out, the “night of the iguana” that Williams chooses to show us is the night in which the captured creature is set free. Hannah, with Maxine’s machete in hand, threatens to free the iguana herself if Shannon will not do it. He does it, cowed into the act by the quiet, fierce determination of Hannah that nature be allowed to take its course. And so the thematic allegory of the release of Shannon from the moral, or at least the psychological, ties that bind has at last begun.
And the play ends on this quiet note. It begins with an extraordinary outpouring of noise, of vocal energy in Shannon, Maxine, and others that is almost deafening in its persistence. The quartet of German tourists adds to the melee, supplying farcical comic relief; whether they were speaking German or bad English was not immediately clear, and they were such caricatures of Gemütlichkeit run amock that, were the play ever to be performed in Germany, they would surely have to undergo a transmutation into French equivalents — no German audience would put up with seeing itself travestied so cruelly. And yet they serve a thematic purpose, even while suggesting some indigestible experience of Williams’s own at some exotic southern resort. All that noise early on makes the peace and quiet all the more prominent and welcome.
Wilson is a master of moods, and he does not stint in drawing from all the resources necessary to make the contrasting moods of this moodiest of playwrights nearly palpable in the theatre. Wilson’s affinity for Tennessee Williams, already well-established in his Streetcar and Glass Menagerie in seasons past (this is his fifth season since taking over from Mark Lamos), is reasserted brilliantly in this finely cast, perfectly realized play.