Before the brilliance of STREETCAR or SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER or any of his full length masterpieces, Tennessee Williams collected characters: crazy, genteel ladies, kindly doctors, coarse, greedy brutes, tormented alcoholics, failed writers and absent men who “fell in love with long distance,” to name but a few of his recurring themes. It’s clear he abhorred men of “force and power” and vain, domineering women. He certainly wrote what he knew best, basing many characters on his own mother and sister.
Zeitgeist Stage Company’s EIGHT BY TENN (playing through Oct. 8th) presents eight One Act plays with characters you will recognize at once from his exceptional full lengths: the women committed to mental institutions, the compromised women reviled by society, husbands ejecting their wives’ relations, characters living by the parliamentary “code” of the old guard, characters grappling with their sexuality, the colorful residents in the close quarters of New Orleans’ Vieux Carré, and the woman-child he calls “Baby Doll.”
What EIGHT BY TENN ends up confirming is the power of those full length dramas, not so much his shorter works. What I wish I had learned from EIGHT BY TENN is how the luminous full lengths evolved from these flawed character studies. To me, many of the short plays seemed disjointed and overblown. Where did he learn the rich narrative form which burns like a fire in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA or CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF? Was it simply the fullness of time or experience?
Director David Miller embraces the exaggerated, outsized tone (of a good many) of the One Acts by presenting stylized, larger than life portrayals for the characters. This is punctuated by Matthew Good’s very loud, bombastic music from the classical canon to introduce each one, like Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre for the vulnerable, doomed MADONNA of the evening’s last play. A few of the vignettes are more accessible, in my opinion, because they feature more naturalistic acting. (One of Williams’ women fittingly delivers a line condemning “abstract expressionism” as passé.)
I’m afraid I think it’s awfully difficult to relate to characters who are lurching about and practically screeching their dialogue. (They’re not “real” enough to identify with… and what’s more, I don’t understand why some actresses raise the pitch of their voices to “grating” in order to portray Southern belles.) I do understand the concept of matching the production to the hysteria of the writing but it’s just so distracting when it’s over the top. The style which I think works best for Williams, and worked best for Zeitgeist (alas, employed only in a couple of the pieces) is “heightened realism.”
For heightened realism to work, however, you need actors the caliber of Michelle Dowd and Damon Singletary. It was a master class in suspense and restraint when they were on stage. The material worked through them and you were focused only on their dialogue, only on the horrific tragedy about to take place.