Something Wild – it’s a classic ’80s movie, it’s a John Hiatt song (one of my favorite rock songs of all time), it’s probably a lot of other things – and now it’s an evening of theater I will remember. Even in small works like the trio of brief one-acts gathered here by the Pook’s Hill theater company, Tennessee Williams draws big women. Big with personality, big with tragedy, big with broken dreams, and in the first play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, big of body as well.
Samantha Steinmetz, whom I saw doing good work in neat & tidy, gets a much more juicy role here. A perfectly normal-sized woman, she (somehow convincingly) plays the zaftig Flora Meighan. Flora is the blowsily sensuous wife of a small-time, low-down cotton processor, played effectively by a sleazed-up Jack Haley, who commits a terrible crime to gin up his business. Left alone with the wronged party (a creepy Brian Gianci) Flora gives way slowly, petal by petal as it were, to awful, awesome temptation. But there’s no tragedy in this tale. In a writ-small way she actually comes off a winner, a rarity among Williams’s big women.
Under the subtle direction of Ken Schatz, Ms. Steinmetz crafts a devastating portrait of a working-class woman with sad, faint pretensions to elegance (clutching her fancy purse for dear life) and a startlingly earthy sexuality that seems both elemental and, in an artistic sense, very modern. It will probably rank as one of the standout performances of Off Off Broadway this year.
Hello from Bertha is less successful, here at least. A character study with no plot to speak of, it stars the highly transformational Andrus Nichols as Bertha, a prostitute not only past her prime but literally sick unto dying. The trouble is, Ms. Nichols seems to be trying to compensate for the lack of narrative flow in the script by overdoing everything. Yes, it’s another larger-than-life Williams role, but there is surely a way of bringing it off with less monsterizing.
In the touching final scene Bertha dictates a letter to an old lover, to a younger colleague played with still composure by Imani Jade Powers (who sports the very best of the wonderful period costumes by Hilary Walker). As Bertha’s oversized personality weakens, she sucks down into the younger woman’s calm, slow quietude, and the play ends strongly because of this. Still, it remains essentially a sketch of a character who, as played by Mr. Nichols, is simply too big for the tiny theater where we meet her.
Nothing “happens” in This Property Is Condemned either, just an encounter by the railroad tracks between Tom (David Armanino), a boy just trickling up to manhood and playing hooky in order to fly his kite, and a gauzy child-woman named Willie (Tess Frazer) whom probably no one other than Tennessee Williams could have gotten away with creating.
Through a series of little narrative shocks, this dirty-faced scamp whom we first see playing childlike on the tracks reveals herself to us (Tom seems already to know a bit more than he lets on about our tragic heroine) as a survivor, so far, of a distressingly harsh life. Willie’s pathos is if anything intensified by Ms. Frazer’s exceptional, delicate beauty, which makes this fantastical creature seem even more unreal, yet even, somehow, more pained and sympathetic – even misbegotten, as suggested by the boy’s name she bears because her family already had a girl and wanted a boy.
Willie is both a winsome feminine flower and a bit of a tomboy, an impressive composite both to create and to play. At one point she even calls out the latest film starring the androgynous Garbo, probably no accident, just as her masculine name’s similarity to the playwright’s own surname is probably no accident.
Even in his short plays Tennessee Williams could deliver female characters nearly as memorable as the leading ladies of his towering classics. The Pook’s Hill company, with director Ken Schatz and an intensely committed cast, all supported ably by Drew Paramore’s smooth small-theater lighting, evocative sound design (uncredited), and Justin West’s compact and elemental sets, fuse into a production to be grateful for – three less-well-known but very worthwhile works by one of the greatest writers of the eventful century that gave birth to all but the youngest among us. The production runs through Oct. 6 at The Abingdon Theater Arts Complex at 312 West 36th Street. Tickets are $18, available at 800-838-3006 or online.