Thursday, September 10, 2015


At first glance, The Acting Company's production of Desire would seem to be an evening of works by Tennessee Williams. After all, the six one-acts are ostensibly based on his short stories, and they burst with Williams-isms: the explosive horror of thwarted desire, needy heartbroken women, scared homosexual men, people unable to defy the world's expectations, glass figurines, even cannibalism. But the one acts offer us Williams' sensibility by way of Beth Henley, Elizabeth Egloff, John Guare, Marcus Gardley, David Grimm, and Rebecca Gilman. These playwrights bring much of themselves to the plays, and many of the results are vibrant, vigorous hybrids.

Mickey Theis, Juliet Brett
“The Resemblance Between a Violin
 Case and a Coffin”
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The evening begins with Beth Henley's "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin." Williams' short story is narrated by Tom, a young man uncomfortable with his homosexual urges and crushed by the loss of his older sister Roe--his one friend--to womanhood. Henley moves the focus to Roe, with Tom more of a supporting character, even giving Roe some of Tom's words. She retains, however, the focus on the high price of sexual desire.

When Richard Miles comes into their lives, his beauty and light throws both siblings for a loop. In the play, Tom's discomfort with his attraction to Richard is played somewhat for laughs, while in the short story Tom feels himself to be a monster. Roe's challenges remain the same. Simply put, her attraction to Richard takes away her power as surely as Samson's haircut removed his.

"The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin," is the least successful play of the evening, partially because it has too many scene changes for a small piece and partially because the direction is uneven. (Michael Wilson directed all six plays; his work on the other five is terrific.) The result is choppy and awkward.
Liv Rooth, Derek Smith
“Tent Worms”
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Next comes Elizabeth Egloff's "Tent Worms." Egloff is largely true to Williams' short story about Billy, obsessed with banishing the tent worms from the cabin he and Clara rent each summer, and Clara, who can do little but drink Tom Collinses. Egloff has provided a story line--the short story focuses more on feelings than plot--and fleshes out the characters and their relationship. Her work is clean, efficient, and effective, and "Tent Worms" packs a big wallop for a little play.

The first act curtain is John Guare's "You Lied to Me About Centralia," which is very loosely based on the short story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass." Jim and Betty, engaged to be married, are chatting. They tell each other the day's events. Jim had dinner with a coworker whose sister collects glass animals. Betty visited her uncle and was confused when a young "colored man" named Rainbow sat with them in the living room like, uh, a regular person.

Mickey Theis, Megan Bartle
“You Lied to Me About Centralia”
Photo: Carol Rosegg
This entertaining one act is more Guare than Williams, which makes evaluating it a little tricky. I enjoyed it completely while watching it. However, that was partially because I thought I was seeing Williams' take on The Glass Menagerie from the Gentleman Caller's point of view, which was exciting.

Then I read the short story and discovered that it is not at all from the Gentleman Caller's point of view. I was disappointed; that sense of discovery was gone. And if the story of the uncle and Rainbow is based on a Williams' work, I couldn't find it. But John Guare is not chopped liver, and his riff on Williams' characters and themes is entertaining and compelling. If I can't have Williams' Gentleman Caller, I'm glad to have Guare's.

Yaegel T. Welch (top),
John Skelley
"Desire Quenched by Touch”
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The second act opens with "Desire Quenched by Touch," based on "Desire and the Black Masseur." Playwright Marcus Gardley said in the Times,
I did not pick this story. I’d heard about it, which is why I think I avoided it a little bit — because I heard it was about cannibalism, and I heard that the African-American character was one-dimensional. When it was assigned to me, to be honest, I was upset. I thought, out of all of this work, I get the piece with the black character that has no name. And then above all, he’s eating this guy at the end.
The real way to adapt Tennessee Williams is to make him angry — to respect his poetic landscape but to make him angry. Because otherwise you’re just repeating him. But I think he wants you to wrestle with him. The darker side of Tennessee Williams, I respect it. His exploration into the underbelly of our humanity? Courageous.
Gardley gives the masseur a name--Grand--and a voice. In the play, Grand is being interviewed by a cop about a missing client. The cop keeps telling Grand to answer questions briefly, but that's not Grand's nature. As he explains, "Mother says I have the tendency to wax parenthetical. 'Get to the point - period,' she used to tell me. 'Nobody has the time to step over your footnotes.'” Grand's voice is lyrical, energetic, and thoughtful.

Making Grand a full character is only one way that Gardley improves on Williams' odd and creepy short story. Another is by making the client whom Grand beats actually, verbally, request that he do so. Both the story and the play are ultimately about atonement, and that is clearer, I think, in the play. And I can almost buy that Grand is doing the client a favor. The cannibalism remains (forgive me) hard to swallow.

Derek Smith, Liv Rooth
Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp
Next is the heartbreaking "Oriflamme," expertly dramatized by David Grimm. Grimm opens up what he called in the Times, "a very internal story. You’re in her head — in a fever mind," by adding a character. Despite this major change, Grimm remains remarkably true to the story, and the new character is convincing as part of Williams' fictional world.

"Oriflamme" is the story of Anna, a sort of Blanche DuBois, depressed, frightened, needy, and inappropriately dressed. The new character, Rodney, is a sort of Stanley Kowalski, coarse, honest, and dangerous. When the play begins, Rodney is sitting on a bench reading the Racing Form. Anna, wearing a stunning red evening gown in the middle of the day, is looking for a working water fountain. (Costume designer David C. Woolard's red dress for Anna is so perfect that it's practically a character in the play.) Anna strikes up a conversation with Rodney. She speaks of "chivalric dignity." He offers her drink from his pocket flask. It is quickly clear that no good will come of their meeting. "Oriflamme" is devastating.
John Skelley, Megan Bartle
“The Field of Blue Children”
Photo: Carol Rosegg

The final show is Rebecca Gilman's "The Field of Blue Children." In some ways, this play feels remarkably like a collaboration between Gilman and Williams, as though they had worked together to bring the story into the 21st century. The young poet named Homer Stallcup in the story becomes Dylan in play. The poetry class becomes filled with "artsy, Birkenstock types." Homer's girlfriend Hertha, who raves about his poetry becomes Dylan's girlfriend Meaghan, who does not.

What remains the same is that Layley (Myra in the story) is a sorority members who feels strongly that something is missing in her life. She gets to know Dylan, and he takes her to the field from one his poems. What happens there is best seen and not spoiled.

The collaboration is not complete. Gilman wrote a comedy and Williams didn't. However, Gilman's humor doesn't diminish the power of the piece (though I do wish she hadn't dumbed down Myra/Layley), and this is a wonderful, fully realized work.

The cast frequently shines, often in multiple roles. Outstanding are Megan Bartle (Betty and Layley), Liv Rooth (Clara and Anna), Derek Smith (Billy and Rodney), Mickey Theis (Jim), and Yaegel T. Welch (Grand).

Evenings of one acts are often a crap shoot. If even half of the plays are good, it feels like a lucky throw of the dice. Desire is the best evening of one acts I've ever seen.--Wendy Caster

(press tickets, 7th row; spent $13.49 to download Tennessee Williams' Collected Stories)

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