Tennessee Williams dramatized women’s quiet lives of desperation. Indeed, his characterizations ping from the haunting, tragic-comedic melodies of emotion he experienced with his family growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. In A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, directed with measured grace by Austin Pendleton, one of Williams’ last plays receives a sterling, masterful presentation. Assuredly, the excellent ensemble of actors provides the poignant atmospheric intensity.
Currently running at Theatre at St. Clement’s, the production deserves a visit for its adroit performances and direction. Pendleton’s nuanced and gradual unfolding of Williams’ dramatic climax at once captivates with its beauty, delicacy, and plaintiveness. Delivered with a less astute balance in shepherding the actors’ portrayals than Pendleton’s, Williams’ complicated play would not deliver the power and heart-break that this production evokes at the conclusion.
Throughout the play we witness three single women’s wants and desires. A fourth, who becomes a foil for the other three, provides the background theme which motivates them to desperation. Each longs for happiness away from her current day to day lower class existence in depression era St. Louis, Missouri. In order to achieve this happiness, they place their hopes in others to deliver it. Ultimately, the women deceive themselves. Clearly, they set themselves up for disappointment after disappointment.
At the opening we note that maternal, nurturing Bodey (Kristine Nielsen in a superb, layered, and profound rendering), chides Dorothea. With precision Jean Lichty portrays the teacher, a fading Southern belle from Tennessee. Lichty’s somewhat frivolous Dorothea spends her entire morning waiting upon Mr. Ralph Ellis’s phone call. Because Bodey is “deaf” and didn’t hear the phone ring when it did, we become persuaded by Dorothea’s view. Initially we believe her relationship with Ralph remains solidly founded. Meanwhile, Bodey prepares food for a lovely outing at Creve Coeur with her twin brother Buddy, anticipating that Dorothea will join them. She insists she will not, for Ralph Ellis has important information to tell her about their lives together.
Strikingly, we see that neither women really listens to the other as each drives forward to achieve their own goals. Dorothea yearns for Ralph, a principal who associates with the country club set. Because of her recent tryst with him, she anticipates that her charms have overwhelmed him romantically as she has been overwhelmed. The inevitability remains clear for her, though Bodey warns her against these notions.
Bodey’s reaction to Dotty’s relationship with Ellis appears questionable. We wonder at Bodey’s potential jealousy of “their love.” The feminine, sweet, pretty Dorothea surely will leave her and get married, a frightening prospect for Bodey. Indeed, Dotty believes that eventually, Ralph will spirit her into a well positioned marriage away from the squalid, spare lifestyle she leads teaching, and renting from Bodey. For her part Bodey, a spinster devoted to caring for others, least of all herself, has given up on her own prospects of marriage. Instead, she believes that her overweight, reliable, unromantic, hearty twin Buddy would be perfect for Dorothea. And if they married, she would be the dependable aunt who would raise their brood and have a vital purpose in their family life.
During the course of the play, two other spinsters join into this group of women who appear unloved and unwanted. Miss Gluck, a German neighbor who has lost her mother and who grieves incessantly. Most probably not only does she grieve the close relationship loss. But she probably grieves that she will be alone. Thus, she must give herself her own solace daily. Indeed, how much can Miss Gluck rely on the friendship of her neighbor Bodey with whom she communicates only in German? Polly McKie as the mournful Miss Gluck is humorous and believable. Thematically, the character portends what happens to women who do not marry well economically or congenially, or whose husbands abandon them to loneliness and despair.
Helena is the fourth spinster who intrudes into the lives of Bodey and Dotty. During the course of her visit, she suggests the monstrous end which awaits the unfortunate Miss Gluck. Incisively portrayed by Annette O’Toole, Helena represents the cruel and bitter archetype of the most miserable of the spinsters. These yearn to escape themselves and falling short, grow venomous and predatory toward other women. Arrogant, acerbic, biting she manipulates with sarcasm. And she bullies and demeans Bodey and Dotty with female cultural mores and the pretense of good breeding. In irony she implies that unless Dotty takes actions to lift herself into an upscale arrangement with her, she will fall into the same despair as Bodey. And with finality, poor Dotty will eventually become a social anathema, the greying, unwanted, depressive Miss Gluck.
As the day unfolds, we learn Helena, too, has wants. A fellow teacher in the same school, she intends for Dotty to be her roommate and share the expensive rent and utilities. Her concern for Dotty’s life path concludes with self-dealing. Her own. She covets the monthly expenses Dotty will hand to her. And she intends Dotty to partner up at their bridge games twice a week for companionship. When Dotty inquires whether the bridge will be mixed, we see the fullness of Dotty’s fear anguish of discouragement.
For Dotty, there is no hope without a man. She cannot define herself in any other terms. Nor can she settle for a kind of contentment or resignation as Bodey, Helena and even Miss Gluck have. For her it’s a man, or it’s the abyss. That her designs fall upon Ralph Ellis and certainly not the overweight, unappealing Buddy, who accompanies his sister to Creve Coeur, is her tragic misfortune.
Tennessee Williams’ ironies and humor seek a fine level in this satisfying and heartfelt production. Notably, the Rolling Stones anthem to humanity rings out loudly in this play’s themes of disappointment and finding one’s courage to move past despair. No, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want!” However, for some of the characters, especially the ones who nurture and look out for each other, they do “get what they need.” Perhaps. Indeed, they may even enjoy a lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur.
Kudos to the artistic team Harry Feiner (Scenic & Lighting Design), Beth Goldenberg (Costumes), Ryan Rumery (Sound Design & Original Music), and the other artists.
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur presented by La Femme Theatre Productions runs without an intermission at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th St) until 21 October. Interestingly, the theater was founded by Tennessee William’s cousin Reverend Sidney Lanier. You may purchase tickets at LaFemmeTheatreProductions.org.