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Theatre in Review: 2 by Tennessee Williams (St Luke's Theatre)

Michael Keller, Kathryn Luce Garfunkel, Justin Holcomb. Photo: Hunter Dowell

Fans of Tennessee Williams will be titillated by the opportunity to check out two of his rarely seen one-acts, but they should calm down and take a deep breath before proceeding to St. Luke's Theatre. Each of these plays needs especially careful handling if they are to work, something they most assuredly do not get here.

27 Wagons Full of Cotton is the better-known title, if only because it inspired the film Baby Doll, a succès de scandale that, having been condemned by the Catholic Church, predictably became a hit and made a star out of Carroll Baker. It also did good things for a young Meryl Streep, who appeared in a 1976 Off Broadway production. It's a comedy of Eros and power involving the South's two favorite exports: the cotton crop and sex. The loutish, abusive Jake blows up a rival cotton gin business belonging to Silva Vicarro, who then must deliver the goods of the title to Jake for processing. Jake bullies his wife Flora -- a drawling, blonde mental infant, all but falling out of her sun dress -- into providing him with an alibi. When Vicarro shows up, his plan of revenge involves seducing Flora, who puts up a pro forma resistance before giving in. The work has a fairly good reputation, the reasons for which are impossible to divine here. Under Marilyn Fried's lackadaisical direction, it comes across as a languorous, unpleasant account of sexual harassment, carried out by three notably repellent characters. Mysteriously, given the size of St. Luke's Theatre, the actors are miked, apparently for the benefit of Kathryn Luce Garfunkel, who, as Flora, delivers her lines in a narcotized murmur that would surely be unintelligible without electronic assistance. This has a devastating effect on what should be an intimate play; the actors are in front of us, but their voices emanate from the sides of the auditorium.

Not that the performances are noteworthy; Flora is supposed to be slow, rather stupid, and highly sensual, but Garfunkel plays her as if at any moment she is going to drift off to sleep. As Jake and Vicarro, Mike Keller and Justin R. G. Holcomb deliver their lines without any particular conviction. Most damaging of all, a play that is almost entirely about sex has no erotic spark at all.

Kingdom of Earth is an early one-act version of what later became The Seven Descents of Myrtle, one of Williams' late-'60s Broadway disasters. And, in terms of plot, it certainly is a pip: Chicken, a brutish, mentally dim farmer, is told that, as a storm approaches, his neighbor is planning to blow up one of his levees, which will cause the flooding of Chicken's farm. Chicken plans to repair to the roof of his farmhouse until rescue arrives or the waters recede. Then his half-brother, Lot, appears, with Myrtle, his wife of two days. Lot is at death's door, thanks to tuberculosis; he immediately takes to his bedroom, too tired and too broke to escape the flood. Lot's arrival is bad news for Chicken: Lot has inherited the farm, which will surely go to Myrtle. As Lot noisily coughs and hacks offstage, Chicken persuades Myrtle to tear up her marriage certificate, and a strange courtship ensues.

This one has its oddly effective moments, including a speech by Myrtle -- no blushing bride -- detailing how she has roamed from city to city, looking for an unspecified something but ending up once again a barfly who goes home with strange men nightly. Chicken also has a typically Williams aria about what goes on between men and women at night as the only source of meaning in life. Keller just about captures Chicken's slow-burning sensuality and peasant cunning, adding some spark to the drama. Judy Jerome is rather too young, pretty, and well-put-together to be Myrtle, who should be well past her sell-by date, thanks to an oversupply of men and booze; still, the actress definitely has something. The stocky Holcomb is the most robust-looking TB patient you've even seem, but he spends the bulk of the play offstage, so his looks aren't that much of a problem. (The actors are not miked in this play, which makes for a significantly better experience.)

What is a problem is the play's drastically compressed action. Myrtle marries Lot on an impulse and, arriving at the farm, instantly drops him in favor of Chicken. Myrtle and Chicken get down to brass tacks immediately, baring their souls and plotting skullduggery without a second thought. And even for a playwright who wildly overvalued the benefits of sexual satisfaction, Kingdom of Earth consists of a set of D. H. Lawrence symbols run wild. Clearly, Myrtle and Chicken are never going to be happy until that flood breaks through, if you know what I mean.

The design is so basic as to not rate comment. Despite its occasional points of interest, Kingdom of Earth isn't enough to make for a passably satisfying evening. Even the best of Williams' plays require highly sensitive handling; that touch is almost totally absent here. -- David Barbour

(20 July 2016)

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