A fan of Tennessee Williams, I was intrigued to see and review DESIRE: An Evening of New Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams, presented by The Acting Company and directed by Michael Wilson. The evening of six one-act plays currently at 59E59 Theaters is a fascinating celebration of Williams by known playwrights who appreciate his work. The playwrights, inspired to spin off Williams’s subjects and characters into new creations, are accomplished playwrights in themselves: Elizabeth Egloff, Marcus Gardley, Rebecca Gilman, David Grimm, John Guare and Beth Henley.
This tribute is a loving one that breathes life into Williams’s short stories. The first and last offerings, The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin by Beth Henley and The Field of Blue Children by Rebecca Gilman, were the strongest in thematic pronouncement, their characterizations and themes the most chilling and powerful. Both rang out Williams’s humor and pathos.
The expressionistic The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin, adapted for the stage by Beth Henley from a Williams story, revisits a small Southern town in the 1920s. The director and artistic team use fanciful screen projections accompanied by lilting music as a backdrop to the action. These elements evoke a haunting through-line that embodies the themes and ties in the spiraling interactions among the characters. The conflict begins when sister Roe (a fine, measured performance by Juliet Brett) moves from being brother Tom’s (a convincing Mickey Theis) close friend to a young woman ready to throw off her innocence for experience. Tom observes his sister’s devolving transformation after a sequence of unusual events.
Tom narrates and the scenes come alive in flashback. We note a Southern family without the father (echoing the characters of The Glass Menagerie.) When Miss Alley (Kristen Adele) schedules a duet for 14-year-old Roe, an accomplished pianist, and violinist Richard Miles (a sensitive portrayal by Brian Cross), Roe is looking forward to the recital with confidence. However, Roe cannot rise to the occasion once she meets the attractive Miles who becomes her obsessive and thwarted love interest.
Events boil when Roe is paralyzed with fear during a practice session with Miles at her home. Her talent dries up; her confidence and determination evanesce. She cannot play. The result is tragic. The theme about artistic genius reverberates. Talent and creativity dry up; no one is able to deliver “the goods” forever.
A foreshadowed event at the play’s beginning comes to pass in a macabre twist. Henley ends with striking scenarios of love gained and lost in dark, swirling undercurrents. The production is beautifully acted and the conclusion is abrupt with elusive undertones. Henley’s sharp adaptation is well executed through director Wilson’s vision and fine execution of the mood. His direction is cannily on point. The themes of life’s transience, the dissipation of vitality after heartbreak, and the tragedy of youth especially haunt in this sterling effort.
Sardonic twists emerge in The Field of Blue Children, Rebecca Gilman’s play also based on a short story. The blending of her humor and irony with Williams’s is refreshing. With an acute appreciation of Williams’s wit and unexpected character turns, Gilman develops the action succinctly. She reveals how people allow circumstance and culture to confine them despite their desire to go beyond the boundaries of social class.
The setting is the University of Alabama where students Dylan (John Skelley), Layley (Megan Bartle), and Meghan (Kristen Adele) are in a writing class. From their exchange we note that Dylan is a serious writer with profound sensibilities. Layley has an intuitive appreciation of Dylan’s work, but little writing skill. Meghan, Dylan’s black girlfriend, an activist and his intellectual equal, characterizes Layley as a “stupid sorority suck” whose sorority is a bunch of “f@%king fascists.”
Layley’s interactions with her “sisters” are hollow. Though she may have poetic sensitivity, it is flooded by catty gossip, conversations about parties, and escapades with boyfriends. As the play progresses we understand the disparate social and cultural backgrounds of these two individuals whom Gilman brings together for a brief interlude.
Dylan and Layley are in relationships with partners who reflect their social standing and intellect, but they are unfulfilled. They yearn for their opposites. Following unconscious impulses, they sexually collide with each other in a spontaneous, passionate encounter in the park encouraged by Layley. For Layley this hot sexual escapade, (the antithesis of what occurs with her own boyfriend) is selfishly satisfying. For Dylan the experience is profound and vital; he has gained control over this woman and what she represents with her cool social standing.
The sexual scene is not only directed and acted in a hysterically funny way, it is an incredible psychological statement about the expectations and digressions of the “haves” and “have-nots.” Wilson stages the scene so that the actors can pull out the stops and highlight the gender role reversal to make the coupling ironic and funny.
Like Dylan we are duped into thinking these two might be the “perfect match.” But Gilman reveals that their relationship cannot be sustained because Layley is incapable of recognizing the value of her own individuality apart from her social class’s mores and the interdicts of the sorority. Rather than expand and embrace an uncertain future of limitlessness, she chooses to forget the possibilities evoked by the spontaneity of being with someone like Dylan. And Gilman likens her state to a sleepy oblivion which will result in a vacant life of quiet desperation. Gilman’s conclusion is surprising and poignant.
Sandwiched between these two vibrant plays are lesser lights that also mirror characters and recurrent themes in Williams’s work. Tent Worms, by Elizabeth Egloff, is about a couple at the end of a vacation on Cape Cod. Writer Billy (Derek Smith has a natural grace which crescendos to a hyper pitch) is obsessed with eradicating the summer cottage of a plague of tent worms. The worms are a metaphor for what is eating away at Billy’s life and career. How he disposes of them, and the reaction of his wife (Liv Rooth) to his solution provides an added punch to a stark and powerful ending.
You Lied to me About Centralia by John Guare is a retelling of The Glass Menagerie from the point of view of Jim, the gentleman caller. Jim (a versatile Mickey Theis) tells his girlfriend Betty (a humorous, whiny Megan Bartle) about an experience he had at “Shakespeare’s” house. As he retells the events, we recognize the familiar characters of The Glass Menagerie: Tom, Rose and Amanda.
From Jim’s moribund, factual perspective, the story is as lackluster, trite and mundane as he is. We remember the vitality and glittering quality of the circumstances narrated by Tom about the interactions among his sister, mother and Jim. All is vapid in Jim’s retelling. With his unenlightened mind, Jim misses the significance.
Unlike Tom’s spinning web that glistens, Jim’s story-telling harbors no “tricks in his pocket.” Jim has no unconscious motivation to expiate his guilt and grieve the past, as Tom does. Guare emphasizes the contrast between their two perceptions. We glean Tom’s obsession to honey over the past he must run from with a soulful, exquisite beauty. Jim’s retelling is absent symbol and meaning. Guare reminds us that all is in the eye of the beholder. The purist art is forged in the fires of suffering, things which Jim will never understand for he has no poetic sensibility to see.
In Oriflamme by David Grimm, Anna (Liv Rooth, an incarnation of Blanche Dubois from Streetcar Named Desire), meets Rodney (a sinister, simmering Derek Smith reminiscent of Stanley in Streetcar). They have an encounter in the park that gradually moves toward a violent intimacy. Ambivalent, Anna maintains an image of chastity; she cannot contravene the Southern folkways about “good” women. After an extended flirtation she repulses Rodney’s sexual advances and scratches him. In angry retaliation Rodney attempts to strangle her, then stops. She is not worth the effort.
As he dumps her literally and figuratively, she cries out for him. She desires intimacy and the pretense of love through sex: it is a hedge against loneliness. The lesson that a debased, crass “something” is better than “nothing” Anna learns too late. Rodney is gone, leaving her alone and desperate. Grimm’s play suggests how painful events like that accumulate to eventually smash Anna’s fragility and bankrupt her soul. The characterization is a precursor to Blanche DuBois.
Desire Quenched by Touch, Marcus Gardley’s stage adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Desire and the Black Masseur, highlights the mythos of the black race as sexual object of desire and utility. The play revisits Williams’s themes of sadism, masochism, and cannibalism. Fountaine Le Grand (a fine performance by Yaegel T. Welch), a gentlemanly black masseur, has been invited to the police station for questioning by Detective Bacon (Derek Smith). Mr. Burns, a homosexual has gone missing. As Le Grand answers Bacon’s questions, Gardley reveals in flashback the developing relationship between Le Grand and Burns (an obsessive, lively portrayal by John Skelley), who increasingly demands abusive massaging by Le Grand. Gardley shows where such obsessions lead. The final scene is shocking and symbolic; it reveals another Williams theme: The limits of self-abuse know no bounds when it is actually performed by others.
The six plays are acute, well written, and skillfully acted. Director Michael Wilson’s unique perspective pairs well with the adaptions to convey the real, poetic truths inherent in Williams. The best of the plays allow Williams’s voice and characters to reign and enforce the unique mark of the playwrights as they form and fashion Williams’s works to make them their own. The production runs at 59E59 Theaters until October 10.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B001QFYCZM][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0811212696][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1598531042]