Tennessee Williams' complicated women

Kennedy Center festival celebrates playwright who wrote memorable, challenging roles

Theater

April 11, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

They're usually Southern, generally outsiders, often fragile, narcissistic, living in the past and, above all, very feminine.

They are the classic heroines in the plays of Tennessee Williams, whose work is being celebrated in "Tennessee Williams Explored," a four-month festival at Washington's Kennedy Center. Highlighted by new all-star productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, the festival gets under way tomorrow with a symposium titled "Women of Tennessee."

Although Williams created strong, memorable male characters -- Streetcar's brutish Stanley Kowalski bellowing, "Stella!" is an indelible example -- the playwright's female characters are dauntingly complex. For actresses trying to capture Williams' women on stage, these roles are among the most intricate and intriguing in American dramatic literature.

"What I love is that the mercurial, almost force-of-nature element to his women isn't ever treated with anything but love and honesty at the same time," says Mary Stuart Masterson, who will play Maggie the Cat, which she calls her "dream role," in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Kennedy Center in June. "These women are not romanticized. They're almost celebrated for their flaws."

"They are incredibly complicated, and that sounds so simplistic, but the complications are genuine and dense," says Patricia Clarkson. Gearing up to portray Blanche DuBois in the Kennedy Center's Streetcar next month, the Emmy Award winner sounds both excited and daunted.

Some scholars contend that Williams wrote all the parts with men in mind, explains Rosemary Harris, a symposium participant who won a Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of Blanche in a 1973 Lincoln Center revival of Streetcar. "I suppose it's a very feminine side of him."

Indeed, Clarkson points out, "many people have felt that Blanche is Tennessee in some ways."

'They're out of step'

The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (1911-1983) -- a homosexual who candidly chronicled his life in his 1975 tell-all Memoirs -- appeared to share a feeling of being an outsider with many of his heroines.

Streetcar's Blanche, a former Mississippi belle, finds herself reduced to sharing two cramped New Orleans rooms with her pregnant sister and crude, working-class brother-in-law. Menagerie's Amanda Wingfield, another erstwhile belle, has struggled to raise two children on her own in a St. Louis tenement. The outsider syndrome even colors the life of frustrated Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; "born poor, raised poor," she's now determined to claim part of the legacy of her rich, closeted, alcoholic husband.

"They're out of step, aren't they?" remarks Harris. "I guess his mother really was out of step."

Williams' female characters often reflected aspects of his domineering mother and beloved, mentally ill sister, most prominently in the largely autobiographical Glass Menagerie.

Harris recalls attending a party in New York in 1966, the night ABC broadcast a production of the play starring Shirley Booth. Williams was also at the party, and Harris says, "Someone said, 'We'll turn the television on for you in the other room,' and I sat behind him, and he watched the whole thing and his shoulders kept shaking and he kept laughing and saying, 'The old witch, the old witch.' "

In The Glass Menagerie, however, it's not only the mother who feels like an outsider; she's passed that sensibility on to her shy, handicapped daughter and to the son who itches to leave home and become a writer.

This outsider status makes Williams' characters, particu-larly his women, "frail and vulnerable," says Zoe Caldwell, a Tony Award winner for her role in Slapstick Tragedy, a 1966 double-bill of Williams one-acts (The Gnadiges Fraulein and The Mutilated).

"He understood [frailty] not only because of his own frailty, but his sister's frailty, too, which I think had moved him for as long as she'd been his sister. And he was a great champion for the weak."

Living in the past

For some of Williams' characters, fragility renders them unable to face reality. As Williams' alter ego, Tom, says of his family in the opening speech in The Glass Menagerie -- "the world of reality" is one "that we were somehow set apart from."

Tom's sister's retreat from reality takes her into a fantasy world -- her collection of glass animals. Other Williams women choose to live in the past -- Tom's mother, Amanda, with her tales of having once been courted by "17 gentlemen callers," or Streetcar's vain Blanche with her memories of life on her family's plantation, aptly called Belle Reve (French for "beautiful dream").

"I think Amanda and Blanche have a great deal in common. They're both sort of Southern belles, both spoiled in their younger days, and then life hasn't turned out the way they wanted it to. Both have a certain sort of neurosis, a slightly Southern neurosis," says Harris. "They're also rather narcissistic. They don't really see anything from anyone else's point of view."

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