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Theatre in Review: A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (La Femme Productions/Theatre at St. Clement's)

Annette O'Toole. Jean Licthy, Kristine Nielsen, Polly Mickie. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Everything about this revival of a late Tennessee Williams work is busy. Harry Feiner's set is crammed with so much furniture that it resembles a thrift shop. The performers are forever bustling about, sometimes running around as if taking part in a footrace. The action is nonstop: A pan of fried chicken spouts so much hot grease that it should be labeled a public menace. One character is prone to nervous fits, falling to the floor in despair. Another is terminally depressed -- when not making frantic dashes to the bathroom, which, soon enough, will overflow, causing further commotion. There are crashing noises from offstage, emotional outbursts, sharp exchanges of words, and a glass of water thrown in someone's face. And yet, for all the expenditure of nervous energy, the play is, from the first line to the last, stuck in idle.

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur was, at its 1979 opening, probably the last Williams work not to be totally dismissed. Seen today, it comes off as scrapbook of his most familiar themes and tropes, so much so that it is difficult to focus on the characters at hand, as they often recall earlier, better plays. The action focuses on Dorothea, a "marginally youthful" (Williams' words) schoolteacher -- her subject is civics -- who shares fairly sordid quarters with Bodey - short for "Bodenhafer" -- a middle-aged German-American office worker. The action, such as it is, focuses on where Dorothea is likely to end up: She is helplessly in love with her school's principal, who is also, somewhat improbably, the toast of St. Louis society. (The year is 1937.) So infatuated is Dorothea that, she confesses to Bodey, she has surrendered her virtue in the front seat of his sedan, a gesture that, she feels sure, will pave a path to marriage.

A pale imitation of Blanche DuBois before she lost her teaching job, Dorothea is a neurasthenic creature, spending money she doesn't have on clothes and assiduously performing gymnastics, the better to be in tip-top shape when her Lothario comes calling. When her nerves get the better of her -- which is often -- there are always a few phenobarbital tablets at the ready to be washed down with brandy; one such dose cues a boozy memory of a long-ago lover cast aside because of his problems with premature ejaculation. (Recalling the end of that affair, she says, sadly, "After Hathaway James, there was nothing left for me but-civics," the evening's most unintentionally risible line.) She pathetically insists that her lover will ring her up any minute, but her illusions are irritating rather than heartrending, since, after five minutes, it is clear to even the most feebleminded audience member that the call is never, ever going to come. Jean Lichty throws herself into the role, offering a full repertory of extravagant gestures and a voice that consists of booming chest tones smothered in honey and magnolia, but the effect is purely exterior; the character's heartbreak is hidden behind a fa├žade of actressy mannerisms.

Bodey, raised to be a very proper German, is scandalized to hear of Dorothea's indiscretion in the principal's car -- known, in a lovely touch, as the Flying Cloud -- because she has plans to marry off her roommate to her brother, a stout, silent sort who loves sausages and cigars. Always looking on the bright side, she assures the unimpressed Dorothea that the young man is determined to lose weight -- why, he has even cut down his daily intake of beer from twelve glasses to eight! A mother hen without a brood of her own, she occasionally strikes a touching figure, especially when trying to obscure her elaborate hearing aid with an enormous paper flower. But just as Dorothea's hopes are so obviously primed for dashing, so, too, is Bodey's nonstop insistence that her sibling would be the ideal husband. Kristine Nielsen brings many of her familiar mannerisms -- including the bobble-headed look of confusion, the childlike dance (accompanied by clapping hands) when delighted, and the melodic voice that drops to the sub-levels when making a forceful point, but there is little humor to be excavated from this character, leaving the actress with lots of business to enact without much payoff.

Trouble arrives in the chicly attired form of Helena, the school's art history teacher, a sinister fashion plate who wants to spirit Dorothea off to a swanky apartment house where they will preside over their female social circle with bridge parties and the like. (She is unaware that Dorothea is only going along with the plan, with its implied betrayal of Bodey, because she thinks the new digs will land her the principal.) Helena, whose main activity in life is looking down her nose at others, has plenty to work with here, and she swans about, sniping at Bodey and her housekeeping and laying claim to Dorothea. As such, she quickly becomes insufferable. To explain her motives, Williams gives her an interesting speech that begins, "Last week I dined alone, alone three nights in a row. There's nothing lonelier than a woman dining alone," but Annette O'Toole has apparently been encouraged to render the character as a harpy through and through. The most distressing aspect of this evening is the sight of this very fine actress putting a period to each of her speeches with a series of scrunched-up faces, eye rolls, and angular poses -- as if she has just completed delivering the eleven o'clock number of a hit musical.

Watching each of these three actresses -- and Polly McKie, as a neighbor turned, by mourning, into a silent, brooding presence -- go her own stylistic way, one wonders exactly what sort of oversight the director, Austin Pendleton, exercised over this production. If there is a workable play here -- the original production earned praise for co-stars Shirley Knight, Peg Murray, and Charlotte Moore -- this company is incapable of delivering it.

Even given the lack of significant action, a better, more nuanced approach would have allowed one to enjoy the script's occasional beauties. As Walter Kerr wittily noted in 1979, "And when Miss Moore quiets her own conscience with the thought that 'The sanctity of a Sunday must sometimes be profaned by business transactions,' you do know who's written the piece." Dorothea makes a forceful defense of her plans, angrily telling Bodey, "I know what you Germans regard as the limits, the boundaries of a woman's life -- Kirche, Kuche, und Kinder -- while being asphyxiated gradually by cheap cigars." There's a plaintive cadence to Helena's assertion that "loneliness in the company of five intellectually destitute spinsters is simply loneliness multiplied by five." And there's a touch of vintage Williams in Helena's catty remark, "Miss Bodenhafer is not approaching forty. She has encountered forty and continued past it, undaunted."

But, by this point in the writer's career, a certain slackness has set in, a willingness to settle for easy vulgarity combined with a need to overexplain. Bodey, praising the butcher who lets her handle his fryers before making a purchase, notes sunnily, "Mr. Butts always lets me feel his meat." Helena, eyeing Bodey, says, "You are Miss Bodenheifer," but Williams kills the laugh by having Bodey reply, "Hafer, not heifer. Heifer meaning a cow." Equally barn-door broad is Bodey's contemptuous assertion to Helena, "You can't catch heartbreak if you have got no heart."

If Feiner's set design is cluttered, he also provides an attractive sunlight wash that makes subtle adjustments throughout. Beth Goldenberg's costumes are finely detailed character studies; the difference between the hats worn by Bodey and Helena are a reliable index of their differences. Ryan Rumery's sound design evokes the street life outside the apartment, but his original music has a gospel undertone that doesn't seem right for these ladies.

One of the oddest moments in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur arrives when Bodey mentions an operation that would remove calcium from her ear and Helena replies, "I had an elderly acquaintance who had this calcification problem and she had a hole bored in her skull to correct it. The operation is called fenestration -- it involves a good deal of danger and whether or not it was successful could not be determined since she never recovered consciousness." Hearing these words, it's easy to conclude that the lobotomy performed on Williams' sister, Rose -- the central trauma of his family's existence -- continued to haunt him late in life. Sadly, his powers as a playwright were on the wane, along with his ability to transmute his demons into powerful drama. At St. Clement's, the heartbreak is confined to the play's title. -- David Barbour

(1 October 2018)

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