Williams' one-acts premiere

TheaterReview

April 24, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Tennessee Williams is best known for grand portraits on broad canvases. But he also sketched smaller works. Five of his one-acts - including four world premieres - make up Five by Tenn, the opening production in the Kennedy Center's "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival.

Although none is a masterpiece, each offers insights into the characters and themes of Williams' greatest plays. The writer's three most famous plays will be the festival's main attractions. But Williams aficionados will want to take advantage of this rare opportunity to see a sampling of the playwright's exploratory, experimental and mostly unknown short works.

Between the playlets, director Michael Kahn includes interludes of the playwright discussing his craft. And though Jeremy Lawrence's depiction of Williams comes across as more of an impersonation or caricature than a deeply felt portrayal, the overall effect is that of dropping in at the writer's studio and watching the master at work.

The four works that are premiering came to the attention of Kahn - artistic director of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre as well as a leading Williams interpreter - through several channels. The first three were unearthed by scholars researching Williams' poetry. The fourth was sent to the director by composer Lee Hoiby, who found it in his guest room years after a visit by Williams.

The evening opens with Those Are the Stairs You Got to Watch, an account of a shy, teen-age Williams stand-in (Hunter Gilmore) on his first day as a movie usher. Most of the other characters - including a distraught older usher (Thomas Jay Ryan) and a libidinous teen-age girl (Carrie Specksgoor) - are overdrawn and overplayed in a manner that suggests either a young writer exaggerating for effect, or perhaps the distortions of a dream.

Two of Williams' central themes - the passing of time and normality vs. abnormality - surface in Those Are the Stairs and are even more prominent in the second one-act, Escape. Set in a summer cottage on a sultry afternoon, Escape examines the relationship between a high-strung mother (sensitively played by Joan van Ark) and her bored teen-age son (Cameron Folmar) - obvious precursors of Amanda and Tom in The Glass Menagerie. The love-hate relationship in Escape, however, would come across more poignantly if Kathleen Chalfant's portrayal of the family's ancient maid weren't so jarringly comic.

And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens is Williams' only play to deal openly with homosexuality. The protagonist is a New Orleans drag queen (movingly played by Folmar) who brings home a Stanley Kowalski-type brute (Myk Watford). The evening's longest work, this tale of loneliness, desperation and self-delusion is given a hopeful note at the end by Kahn's emphasis on the bond of friendship instead of the loss of love.

The Municipal Abattoir - Hoiby's discovery and the fourth in the lineup - is the least characteristic of Williams. Set in a totalitarian regime, it focuses on a young rebel (the versatile Folmar) who attempts to recruit a spineless ex-government worker (Ryan). With political posters lining the back wall and a snippet of direct-audience address at the end, this playlet is more reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht than Williams. It would have a creepier and more immediate impact, however, without the use of Eastern European accents.

In the concluding playlet, I Can't Imagine Tomorrow, which Kahn first directed in 1986, Williams takes another detour, this time into the realm of Samuel Beckett. In this stark drama, a timid Ryan and a bold Chalfant play an oddly matched couple. He has lost the ability to complete a sentence, and she, suffering from some undisclosed illness, appears to have lost the desire to live. Again, however, Kahn infuses the ending with a small dose of hope, suggesting that these two might achieve what all of Williams' characters yearn for - a connection with a kindred spirit.

All five one-acts - which were written between the late 1930s and early 1970s and are arranged roughly in chronological order - are enhanced by designer Andrew Jackness' convertible sets, whose rear walls neatly capture the stylistic needs and differences of the plays - from the expansive windows that overlook a lake stretching all the way to the horizon in Escape, to the haunting emptiness that lies beyond the invisible door and window in I Can't Imagine Tomorrow.

"I've always regarded myself as an incomplete person, and consequently I've always been more interested in my own kind of people, you know, people that have problems, people that have to fight for their reason, people for whom the impact of life and experience from day to day, night to night, is difficult, people who come close to cracking," the character of Williams says in the introduction to I Can't Imagine Tomorrow.

Five by Tenn is populated with these incomplete people and their echoes of the Amandas, Stanleys and Blanches of Williams' bigger, more polished works. At the end of Kahn's production, the playwright sits at his typewriter, with his young alter ego writing in longhand at his feet. The image encapsulates the audience's experience of having followed the artistic growth of one of America's greatest playwrights.

Probably the most unusual offering in the "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival, Five by Tenn is an excellent introduction to the large-scale productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie yet to come.

Five by Tenn

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (except today and tomorrow) and April 26; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (except tomorrow). Through May 9

Tickets: $35-$60

Call: 800-444-1324

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