Last season, Zeitgeist Stage presented an evening of character sketches and stories by Tennessee Williams which he would later shape into his celebrated plays. This spring Zeitgeist returns to Williams with a vehicle called DESIRE (six plays by noted playwrights based on his short stories), running through May 20th. Beth Henley, Elizabeth Egloff and John Guare are among the writers who were invited by Hartford Stage to create adaptations of Williams’ lesser known source material.
David Miller is a consummate director (and stage designer), as evinced by these six pieces… and he is fortunate to have a remarkable cast to animate them. Each actor has the chance to showcase his or her skills by inhabiting an entirely different role, depending on the play. It’s certainly a treat for the viewer to witness these actors’ versatility.
Beth Henley’s THE RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN A VIOLIN CASE AND A COFFIN is a wonderfully evocative portrait of Southern Gothic matriarchy. Father is gone, (perhaps he fell in love with long distance) leaving mother and grandmother to preside over the children: An impressionable young girl (a sweet and sensitive Margaret McFadden) who spends her days practicing piano and devising highly melodramatic religious theatricals; and her slightly challenged brother (a wildly intense John Vellante) who happily acts them out with her.
When a dashing young man (Sam Terry oozing sophistication) bicycles by with his violin (delightful wheel imagery indicating a bicycle), she is more than happy to turn her attention to him. Then her piano teacher (a marvelously severe Margaret Dransfield) suggests they practice a duet (more clever imagery to indicate an instrument) at which point the brother is consumed with jealousy. Henley’s dialogue fairly drips with shadowy, tragic allusions.
ORIFLAMME by David Grimm conjures up visions (for me) of Geraldine Paige as Williams’ quintessential fragile seductress, a temptress one moment, a puritan the next. Lindsay Beamish gives a powerful performance as the “lady in red” (elegant costumes from Elizabeth Cole Sheehan) whose “romantic notions” are lost on the men she chooses to engage. Damon Singletary is superb as the man in the park (think Stanley Kowalski) who doesn’t stand on ceremony and doesn’t hesitate to take her up on her offer. Like Blanche DuBois, Grimm’s shatterable creature recalls her love of an idealized “beautiful boy.” It set my mind flooding with images from quite a few of Williams’ plays.
John Guare’s YOU LIED TO ME ABOUT CENTRALIA conjures up scene after scene of THE GLASS MENAGERIE. (Guare based his play on the “gentleman caller” who comes to dinner not realizing that mother plans to turn him into a suitor… until she learns he has a fiancé.) Guare imagines the fiancé (a flinty Katie Flanagan) as a grasping, opinionated racist, leaving us to conclude that the gentleman caller (Eric McGowan) would be much better off with the crazy Wingfields.
So far so good. Even though Elizabeth Egloff’s ATTACK OF THE GIANT TENT WORMS left me scratching my head, trying to figure who was more insane, the wife (Dransfield) or her buggy writer-husband (Alexander Rankine). I was still interested in the story either way. But the last two plays of the evening gave me the creeps. More than creeps.
Although it was flawlessly performed, Marcus Gardley’s DESIRE QUENCHED BY TOUCH is an exercise in torture which I wouldn’t watch if I didn’t have to (middle of the row, no escape from the theater). If it had been on television, I would have changed the channel. If it had been in a movie, it would be a snuff film and I wouldn’t be there in the first place.
The masseur (Singletary, vilely macabre) complains that he feels dirty, satisfying the masochistic needs of his client (Terry screaming and writhing). We, my companions and I, were the ones who needed a shower after watching it (against our wills, I should add). Certainly Williams has touched upon the subject (at the very end of the play which I won’t give away) in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER but his prose is poetic and Gardley’s is not. That’s why this felt like sadomasochistic porn… which brings me to Rebecca Gilman’s THE FIELD OF BLUE CHILDREN.
I had little patience left by the time we got to Gilman’s tale of bizarre sexual fulfillment (nevertheless well acted by Vellante and Dransfield). The vacuous woman never shut up during an interminable sexual encounter, droning on in horrific detail about a roast pig at a barbeque, thereby undercutting any sympathy I might have had for her. It might have been funny… but it wasn’t. (Contrast this artless effort with the exquisite scene in COMING HOME when Jane Fonda’s character experiences sexual ecstasy for the first time.) Gilman, I’m sorry to say, missed the mark.