December 5, 2008
A trip to Tennessee
by Greg Boyle
Tennessee Williams was a modern day Shakespeare. His characters speak lines whose truth and beauty remain with you long after you’ve left the theatre. Seemingly out of nowhere, impoverished, forlorn creatures take flight in mellifluous monologues whose soaring images are in harsh contrast to the squalid circumstances of their lives. They speak with apparent authority of places and things they will never see, as an attempt to raise themselves from the desperate situations they find themselves in. Williams’ characters always believe they’ve got a rich lover somewhere, and that this isn’t really the life they were meant to live.
The UMKC Theatre production of a series of Tennessee Williams one-act plays titled Five by Tenn (+ 1 ) gives an indication as to how Williams evolved to become a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Almost all were written before his full-length plays, but every aspect of his signature style is present. These much lesser known efforts are performed with confident strength by members of the MFA program at the university.
Escape is the first, shortest and most difficult to fathom of the six. It is almost a sketch, in reflecting the reactions of a small group of prisoners to the burst for freedom of one of their cohorts. Through no fault of the actors, Escape is the least well-realized portion of the evening. However, it introduces the image of a train as a metaphor for escape and freedom, a concept that recurs in other plays.
The bulk of the evening is dedicated to the prototype that made Tennessee Williams famous. Four of the other five plays center on the high-strung, loquacious, imaginative/delusional women that reside at the heart of Williams’ dramas. Blanche DuBois, Amanda Wingfield, and Maggie the Cat have their roots in the women of these one-acts. We get to see that character explored in almost every possible permutation: as a child, a prostitute, a young woman, an older woman, a southerner, a Yankee, in the bloom of life and on her deathbed.
This Property is Condemned provides us with the first glimpse, in this case played by Anna Safar. Her child-woman is a true daughter of the South with rising inflections, a drawl you could cut with a knife, and sudden changes of mood that shock the audience with their swiftness. Safar does an exceptional job of bringing the youthful character to life.
Next up came Hello from Bertha, the tale of a dying St. Louis prostitute, still unwilling to detach from her delusions or her alcohol. Helen Gonzalez gives depth to her desperation and sadness.
The Lady of Larkspur Lotion gives us another down, but still refusing to go out take on the character. Like other Williams heroines, Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore refuses to let go of her unfounded notion of gentility. Her neighbor defends her by insisting that it is only proper to “replace the cruel deficiencies of reality with god-given imagination.” Samra Teferra essays the role with ephemeral charm.
The Long Goodbye gives us a break in the action. It appears to be the most autobiographical piece of the evening, with a writer moving out of the home where he grew up in New Orleans. It is a memory play and still contains the essential female role, but this time she isn’t the central character and hasn’t a lot to say. Actually, Elana Kepner probably delivers the most true to life version of the character, whom biographers have identified as Williams’ mentally ill sister. The mood and tempo created for us by the actors is right on target, making this play easy to identify with.
Talk to Me Like the Rain, and Let Me Listen is one of the lines in this final installment of the evening. It refers to the steady rhythm of a continuing downpour, how it is soothing and mesmerizing. It is a fitting description of what Williams’ women do. This one-act starts out deceptively, the initial action focusing on the man, and the female remains mute. However, after the man speaks the title line, Rachel Hirshorn embarks on a soliloquy that took my breath away. In lesser hands, the speech would have been prattled on by rote. In certain speeches of Williams plays, prattling is the correct interpretation. Not here. Instead, each new phrase seems to rise freshly from her mind to our ears. A look of inspiration comes to her face with each new thought. Hirshorn gives us that thought as though it has never been spoken before. It was nothing less than a sparkling performance.
Unfortunately, I have given the men in the cast short shrift, but that must be expected in a Tennessee Williams evening. By and large they played well, with a special notice for Nicholas Gehlfuss, who had almost nothing to do but listen through two of the evening’s presentations. Very few actors anywhere can be so still and pay attention to their stage partner, without even putting their hands in their pockets. Fine work.
A small note of appreciation to the costumer: Every one of the characters wore an outfit that was chronologically correct and appropriate, even down to the shoes. You don’t often see that in student productions.
If you like Tennessee Williams, you should find your way to the student “Black Box” theatre inside of the same building as KC Rep, 4949 Cherry. Five by Tenn (+ 1 ) runs thru Dec. 14. Call in advance, seating is limited. Box office 816-235-6222 or go to www.umkc.edu/theatre.
Greg Boyle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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