Olney's strong cast gets 'Night of the Iguana' right

August 23, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Tennessee Williams created lots of fascinating female characters. But two of the strongest, most resilient and seemingly dissimilar are in "The Night of the Iguana."

At Olney Theatre, their splendid portrayals by Pamela Lewis and Valerie Leonard are the heart of the production.

Outwardly, their characters are polar opposites. As Maxine Faulk, the lusty proprietor of a rundown Mexican hotel, Lewis is first seen lying in bed while her outstretched leg is kissed by one of the Mexican boys who works at the hotel.

Lewis' blowzy movements and loud conversation are the antithesis of Leonard's Hannah Jelkes. As a New England spinster who travels the world with her 97-year-old poet grandfather, Leonard makes an unassuming, ladylike, solitary entrance. Everything about her suggests stillness and order.

Maxine and Hannah have two things in common: They are survivors, and they have attracted the same man -- the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon, a lapsed Episcopal priest-turned-tour guide with a weakness for alcohol and teen-age girls. Philip Goodwin makes the fallen clergyman's attraction to Hannah easy to understand. She embodies the refinement, culture and dedication he lost but futilely aspires to regain.

Goodwin, however, exhibits too much of the character's refinement -- and too little of his libido -- to convey his affinity for loose-living Maxine. Even so, the actor makes the Rev. Shannon's agitated state palpable and, despite his loss of dignity, sympathetic. Like the iguana the Mexican boys have tied under the hotel porch, Shannon is at the end of his rope. This image is reinforced when Maxine orders the boys to tie the raving Shannon in a hammock. When they're done, the tethered minister bears a marked resemblance to the iguana, which they wrapped in a straw mat.

This precision is typical of Olney's physical production. In a play that dwells on Shannon's inability to distinguish between the fantastic and realistic, Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting subtly evokes metaphysical as well as meteorological changes. And on the level of the spiritual vs. the corporeal, James Kronzer has designed a set that locates the hotel on the site of a ruined church, which is in turn dotted with ancient Aztec sculptures.

Director Jim Petosa has assembled a strong supporting cast. As the priggish Baptist teacher in charge of the tour group that Shannon is supposed to be guiding, Jewell Robinson keeps her thin character from becoming a caricature. And, as "the world's oldest living and practicing poet," Richard Bauer is cast in a role well-suited to his quirky mannerisms.

"The Night of the Iguana" (1961) was Williams' last successful Broadway play, and while he peopled it with many of his archetypal characters, this particular combination can be difficult pull off. A Broadway-bound revival starring Michael Moriarty, Eileen Brennan and Jeanne Moreau failed to achieve it nine years ago, closing at the end of a tryout run at the Mechanic Theatre. Olney's effort may be more modest, but it comes closer.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Night of the Iguana"

Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Aug. 27; and 2 p.m. Sept. 1; through Sept. 11

Tickets: $22-$27

Call: (301) 924-3400

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