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Sweet Williams
Tennessee, we hardly knew ye
8 by Tenn
By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Michael Wilson. Set by Jeff Cowie. Costumes by David Woolard. Lighting by John Ambrosone. Original music and sound by Fitz Patton. Choreography by Peter Pucci. With Remo Airaldi, Elizabeth Ashley, Curtis Billings, Helmar Augustus Cooper, Denny Dillon, Kevin Geer, Jennifer Harmon, Annalee Jefferies, and Amanda Plummer. At Hartford Stage, Hartford, Connecticut, through November 8.

HARTFORD ó This is not your grandfatherís Tennessee Williams, with its valiant-harridan mother selling magazine subscriptions by phone and its gauzy-pretentious Southern belle being led off to the asylum by strangers. Actually, there are a couple of exits à la Blanche DuBois, but artistic director Michael Wilsonís latest entry in Hartford Stageís ongoing Tennessee Williams Marathon contains worlds ó not all of them what we think of as Williamsís. A compilation of eight one-act plays by the celebrated author of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, spanning his prolific output from 1937 to 1983, the fascinating sampler, presented in two programs, shows the writer both formulating and breaking out of his identifiable mold to try those of Ionesco and Beckett. Itís a wild journey, counting among its indelible guides Elizabeth Ashley, Annalee Jefferies, Amanda Plummer, and the American Repertory Theatreís Remo Airaldi, who, trumping even his more outlandish ART appearances, makes his Hartford debut, in The Gnädiges Fräulein, as a large, harshly cawing "Cocaloony" bird in flippers and feathers.

According to dramaturg Christopher Baker, a lot of thought went into selecting the program for 8 by Tenn, with plays first making the cut, then being axed to make way for others. The winning eight showcase both Williamsís strengths and his weaknesses, the gorgeous, slightly affected lyricism of his language turning up in even the more pedestrian, or the wackier, efforts. And Wilson has come up with an effective unifying device, setting the entire four and a half decadesí worth of work in the warehouse of the International Shoe Company, where Williams labored from 1932 until 1935. Says Williamsís alter ego, Tom, in Menagerie, "I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox." So it is here, though no pink-slipping goes on, with a pomaded Williams stand-in, inspired by a random pair of footwear, beginning each program by scrawling on a shoebox lid as the towering beige and the factory clank of the warehouse give way to color and the cello plink of inspiration.

The "Rose" program is probably named for Williamsís mentally afflicted sister, the Laura of Menagerie. Along with the author himself, Rose inhabits his wounded heroines, from Blanche predecessor Miss Lucretia Collins of the 1946 Portrait of a Madonna to the near-catatonic artist Kyra of the 1983 The One Exception, which, one of three world premieres here, is probably Williamsís last effort, written months before he choked on a pill-bottle cap in 1983. The "Rose" program begins with the 1937 The Palooka and ends with Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, a cracked musical, written in 1969 and revised in 1981, that combines Camino Real with "The Ladies Who Lunch."

On the "Blue" program are the standards The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, which was written in 1941, and Something Unspoken, which made its Broadway debut sopping up the luridness of Suddenly Last Summer in 1958. Theyíre followed by the futuristic The Chalky White Substance, from 1980, and The Gnädiges Fräulein, from the viciously received 1966 Broadway bill Slapstick Tragedy.

Taking in the two longer plays, Fräulein and Cats, you can see why Williams called the 1960s his "Stoned Age." But Fräulein, in particular, makes clear how persecuted and debilitated this great American artist, who lived most of his professional life in the commercial theater, felt. Try as Williams might to break away from the lyrical ache of Menagerie and the sexual hysteria of Streetcar, he was hampered by the combination of public expectation and his own gifts.

In Hartford, the gifts not only are on display but have been expertly wrapped. Williams veteran and soul mate Elizabeth Ashley leads off the "Blue" program with an impressively frowzy, affected turn in The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, the title character so christened by her gruff landlady in the New Orleans flophouse where she languishes, comforted by a flask and gentlemen of the evening while awaiting funds, she maintains, from a Brazilian rubber plantation. The plaintive-comic vignette is notable primarily for the declaration of the Williams stand-in called the Writer, who staggers in to defend his fellow tenant. "Is she to be blamed because it is necessary for her to compensate for the cruel deficiencies of reality by the exercise of a little ó what shall I say? ó God-given imagination?" A Williams credo in embryo.

Something Unspoken, which follows, is an elusive if well-written work that suffers from too much of the title commodity. Two Southern ladies, Jennifer Harmonís impeccably imperious Miss Cornelia Scott and Annalee Jefferiesís exquisitely faded Miss Grace Lancaster, the latter secretary to the former, celebrate 15 years of niggardly companionship, Grace observing of the passage of time that both have turned gray. But, she notes sadly, Cornelia is an "iron" gray while she is merely the "color of cobweb."

For The Chalky White Substance, which Williams sets "100 years after a thermonuclear war," a number of the bare bulbs that hang on long, thin cords are lowered to the ground and gray confetti flutters from above as two men enact a furtive encounter on some bare black boulders. This is Williamsís Beckett play, albeit permeated with his own more sentimental need for human tenderness. The delicate Luke of Curtis Billings is the boy toy of Helmar Augustus Cooperís tougher "protector," Mark, whose sexual love for him Luke overestimates, given the hardness of the world. In an unmistakable Williams touch, the rain of ash is identified as Godís bones reduced to "powder that blows and blows about His broken creation."

The Gnädiges Fräulein finds the shoe warehouse transformed into a vaudeville-allegorical Key West, where everything is "Southernmost," the characters are knocked about by hurricane-force winds, and a tangle of plastic flamingoes accessorizes the bit of beach before a ramshackle rooming house called the Big Dormitory. Wilsonís production of this grotesque little comedy is terrific: outsized yet precise, punctuated with clown-show sound effects, yet poignant in its handling of the suffering central character. Amanda Plummer as Polly, a Charlie Chaplin-esque gossip columnist for the local paper, and Ashley as Molly, the showboating tough nut who presides over the Big Dormitory, lounge breezily on a blood-stained porch smoking a little "Mary Jane," the former looking for a story, the latter looking for publicity. "Human interest" comes in the form of one of the guests, the former "personage" of the title, a European chanteuse reduced to dueling with the scavenging Cocaloony birds for the fish that earn her keep.

The Gnädiges Fräulein is an extreme example of what Harold Clurman (one of few critics to give the play any credit when it appeared in 1966) called Williamsís identification with "the insulted and the injured, the misfits and the maimed." In the diminutive, slightly madcap person of Denny Dillon, who wears the frayed remnants of the GFís "theatrical wardrobe," she first appears with one eye pecked out; by eveningís end, sheís Oedipus in a tutu, half-scalped and dripping blood. Yet as energetically cartoon-like as the staging is, it also captures the gallantry Williams means to accord the artist. Prodded, maligned, and put on cruel display, she nonetheless heads out with her bucket, risking life and limb to bring back that fish.

Equally bizarre is the "Rose" programís main event, the absurdist musical Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, for which Hartford composer Fitz Patton provides a jumpy-slinky score that ends in an attack of Kurt Weill. Once again the warehouse is flooded with color; even the shoeboxes are muted yellow and aqua and pink. The scene is a sort of funhouse restaurant presided over by Cooper as a leering maître dí who belts out the title song with menacing gusto. Jefferies and Harmon are the catty, hard-edged Madge and Bea, who meet for lunch and some Alice in Wonderland wordplay, repressed sexuality occasionally popping out from under their pillboxes. Billings and Airaldi are biker hustlers, one softer than the other, who occupy another table and the attention of the "old queen" at the desk. A pregnant waitress sporting a black eye is regularly reduced to tears, and a Reaper-like figure keeps sweeping by the invisible window to the street. The piece is well turned out in a harshly festive, ghoulish way; what it means, other than that Williams was game for new forms, is mysterious.

This evening begins with the predictable and apparently never produced The Palooka, which is about a fighter past his prime. Portrait of a Madonna, immediately followed by the deathbed doodle The One Exception, is notable in part because the versatile Jefferies gives such different performances. Clutching a blanket to her spindly chest as the deranged spinster of Madonna, her faded curls caught up in a ribbon, her whole being caught up in a memory of sun-scorched humiliation, she combines fragility with a stubborn strength. Then in Exception sheís almost unrecognizable in a pageboy wig and armor of steely sophistication. This drama, though, is less good than terribly sad. Jefferies plays a one-time artist chum of the central figure, who has suffered a breakdown. Turns out she only wants to borrow money from the numb, herky-jerky character disturbingly rendered by Plummer. Itís painful to think this is how Williams saw himself at the end of his life: being panhandled in purgatory.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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