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Theatre in Review: Desire (The Acting Company/59E59)

John Skelley, Megan Bartle. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Half a dozen eminent playwrights tackle the short fiction of Tennessee Williams in this intriguing theatrical omnibus. It's fair to say that Williams' prose comes in a distant second to all but his weakest plays -- it's hard to think of one story that might be considered canonical -- but most of them contain flashes of the brilliance that made him arguably the greatest American playwright of the 20th century. Interestingly, the best pieces here avoid undue reverence, using Williams' stories to excite their theatrical imaginations, with results that are often far removed from their source material.

The major exception to this pattern is The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin. It's the story of Roe, an adolescent girl (and gifted pianist), and her little brother, Tom, who are both disturbed, in ways they cannot account for, by the appearance of the handsome Richard Miles. Richard is to play a couple of duets with Roe at a recital, but, even as the young girl's feelings blossom, her musical ability shrivels. It's a delicate tale of yearning and dissolution, with a faintly macabre ending; Beth Henley's adaptation sticks closely to the original text, blending dialogue scenes and narration with music and stylized movement to tease out the characters' unspoken feelings without being too explicit about it. It's a beautifully judged piece, grounded in the sensitive performance of Juliet Brett as Roe.

A tougher nut to crack is Desire Quenched by Touch, adapted by Marcus Gardley from the story Desire and the Black Masseur. It's the faintly surreal tale of Burns, a neurasthenic young man, and his brutal -- and, needless to say, erotically charged -- masochistic relationship with a black masseur. It ends in a horrifying act not easily represented on stage. Gardley reconceives the story, adding a new character, a police detective, who interviews Grand, the masseur, about the disappearance of Burns. As Grand describes the story of his relationship with his strange client, Gardley turns the masseur into an unreliable narrator, contrasting the violent on-stage action with Grand's softened account. The ending elicited gasps from the audience at the performance I attended. The standout here is Yaegel T. Welch as the genial, chatty, and thoroughly untrustworthy Grand.

John Guare was handed a seemingly impossible task when given Portrait of a Girl in Glass, a story that is, essentially, a dry run for The Glass Menagerie. How does a playwright avoid competing with one of the American theatre's flagship works? Guare's remarkably creative solution is You Lied to Me About Centralia, which centers on Jim, The Glass Menagerie's Gentleman Caller, and Betty, his fiancée. The action takes place directly after Williams' play ends; Jim has gone to the St. Louis train station to pick up Betty and is upset to discover that she didn't visit the title city, as she promised. Instead, she went to visit a well-off uncle, hoping to hit him up for a cash gift to finance the young couple's dream house. On arrival, Betty is upset to learn that her uncle's "fiancée" is nowhere in evidence, but he appears to be living with a black man named Rainbow. (She mistakes him for the houseman.) Already feeling adrift and disturbed by this experience, she is distinctly unhappy to learn that Jim has been dining with "Shakespeare," the fey, poetry-loving clerk from the shoe factory, and his family. For his part, Jim is feeling undone; having spent the evening in the company of so much determined eccentricity, he is left wondering if there is anything of interest to himself at all. Guare's play is a funny, touching footnote to a great work, blessed with finely shaded performances by Mickey Theis and Megan Bartle.

The Field of Blue Children is a piece of Williams juvenilia, a 1937 story about a single romantic encounter between a two college students -- a popular coed and an earnest young poet. Williams appears to have been under the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his own distinctive voice is muted here. Thus, Rebecca Gilman felt free to take the kernel of a plot and update it to the present-day University of Alabama, adding plenty of hilariously acid observations about southern sorority sisters and centering it around an explicit sexual act. The result is a melancholy comedy with a life of its own, yet which retains the ache of the original's poignant central situation. John Skelley is fine as the young poet, and Bartle scores another finely etched characterization, this time as a conventional young lady who doesn't understand the disappointment that so mysteriously gnaws at her soul.

Far less successful is Tent Worms, by Elizabeth Egloff, taken from the story of the same name, about a marriage under strain during a summer on Cape Cod. The husband, a novelist, is dying; both he and his wife know it and yet they can't discuss it. She is waiting for the end with a mixture of dread and excitement; he acts out by trying to destroy the pests of the title, which are running amok in the trees around their cottage. Egloff adapts the story to the present day, adding many new details, all of which have the effect of making the elliptical original, so filled with a sense of loss, into something dull and banal. The fine actors Derek Smith and Liv Rooth are left more or less stranded. Even weaker is Oriflamme. The story is a kind of interior monologue about Anna, a department store clerk, holding on to her sanity by her fingernails. David Grimm turns it into a two-hander in which Anna encounters a male stranger and pours out her heart, only to be sexually molested. As with Tent Worms, what seems so evanescent on the page becomes coarsened when put on stage. Anna seems little more than a road company Blanche DuBois, leaving Rooth with little option but a display of mannerisms; Smith is similarly hamstrung with a one-dimensional role.

Nevertheless, the evening generally beguiles under the deft hand of director Michael Wilson, surely the most authoritative director of Williams' plays that we have. The designer, Jeff Cowie, has provided a unit set, featuring a deck and upstage wall consisting of inlaid pieces of wood, which suits all of the plays; he individualizes each piece with projections of seashores, urban parks, rain storms, and other imagery. Russell H. Champa's lighting strikes a different emotional tone for each piece. David C. Woolard's costumes range deftly across several eras and a variety of social situations. John Gromada's sensitively wrought original music combines to good effect with such effects as thunder, marching bands, and bits of classical music.

A must for Williams fans, Desire is filled with so many grace notes and accomplished performances that it should prove satisfying for all. At its best, it's a captivating collaboration across the generations, resulting in new works that are solidly grounded in the lesser-known writings of one of our greatest artists. -- David Barbour

(11 September 2015)

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