Both dedicated theatergoers and disinterested high school students past and present are familiar with Tennessee Williams. His plays are among the few that elicit a meaningful, ‘I’ve read that.’ The two-time Pulitzer-winner’s dreamy, desperate Southern Gothic dramas helped formulate an emotionally grounded style of American acting that is still practiced today. Six playwrights have read Williams very closely, and The Acting Company’s DESIRE, performed at 59E59, comprises the playlets inspired by those readings.
Williams (1911–1983) sharpened his distinctly Southern, autobiographical voice at The University of Iowa and The New School. In addition to plays, screenplays, and volumes of correspondence, Williams wrote 21 short stories. The adaptations in DESIRE are imaginings, not imitations. The evening performance is a sincere, successful tribute to a writer whose experimentation is now either taken for granted or ignored.
Despite the title of the performance, A Streetcar Named Desire is not included, because it was never a short story. Instead, David Grimm’s Oriflamme introduces Anna (Liv Rooth), another troubled Southern Belle. Grimm’s play begins where Williams’s 1974 story ends. Anna spends a chilly afternoon in the park with drifter Rodney (Derek Smith). Dressed in a sleeveless red gown, Anna’s delirium is the result of consumption, not madness, though she goads Rodney the same way Blanche does Stanley in Streetcar. Loneliness and deceit almost bring them together, but not quite. Oriflamme is sad and strange.
Layley (Megan Bartle) is the outwardly confident Southern Belle in Rebecca Gilman’s The Field of Blue Children. The 1939 short story’s timeframe is made contemporary but still takes place at The University of Alabama. Layley has an unspoken interest in life beyond sororities, homecomings and country clubs that she shares for one night with Dylan (John Skelley), the poor, aspiring poet who loves her. Class differences and social conformities make anything further between them impossible. Gilman shrewdly replaces The Poetry Club, where the two interact, with a vindictive poetry workshop session. Both writers who have survived this particular classroom torture and those who have never experienced it will squirm equally for Dylan. Further adding to the background are Layley’s rich-bitch sorority sisters, who no doubt ‘read’ Tennessee Williams in core literature courses. Neither the author nor adaptor has sympathy for these Belles, or Layley.
Beth Henley’s The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin explores unrealistic creative expectations in a three-generation household of Southern Belles. Adolescent Roe (Juliet Brett) studies piano under the suffocating supervision of her Mother (Megan Bartle) and Grandmother (Liv Rooth). Roe’s best friend is kid brother Tom (Mickey Theis), until she’s paired off with violinist Richard (Brian Cross) for the annual recital. Williams’s 1950 story makes it clear that both siblings are attracted to Richard; Henley infers it, choosing to focus on Tom’s jealousy over Roe’s infatuation with Richard. Henley’s skill at depicting family dysfunction and capturing the worst possible childhood memories perfectly match those of Williams.
Loss of creative spirit is also the theme of Elizabeth Egloff’s Tent Worms, based on a story Williams wrote in the 1940s but that was not published until 1980. Billy (Derek Smith) and his wife Clara (Liv Rooth) are vacationing in Provincetown, MA (Willams’s longtime home). A side effect of Billy’s undisclosed illness is manic behavior — thus his obsession with tent worms (scientific name: tent caterpillar). Clara’s response is drinking. Egloff turns Billy into a writer and Clara an editor to whom writing is no longer important. Egloff respects Williams’s lack of plot essentials (What is the diagnosis? Should these two be left alone in the first place?) but falls into cliché (writer’s block as a metaphor for death, writing and drinking).
Marcus Gardley’s DESIRE Quenched By Touch is the most innovative adaptation. Using the 1948 ‘DESIRE and the Black Masseur’ as a starting point, Gardley uses flashbacks to weave a Missing Persons case out of the business relationship between the wealthy Burns (John Skelley) and his masseuse Grand (Yaegel T. Welch). Williams never disguised the duo’s sadistic relationship, but onstage the otherwise intrepid Detective (Derek Smith) never catches on. The sustained distribution of tension, deception and repulsion leads to a memorable ‘Southern’ and ‘Gothic’ conclusion.
Betty (Megan Bartle) does all the talking at opening of John Guare’s You Lied to Me About Centralia. Her monologue about visiting a rich uncle and his longtime black companion that she mistakes for the butler makes for a funny scene, because she is so oblivious. It isn’t until Jim (Mickey Theis) describes dinner ‘at Shakespeare’s’ that the audience realizes he is The Glass Menagerie’s ‘Gentleman Caller.’ Williams wrote ‘Portrait of a Girl in Glass’ in 1943, a year before the play. Guare does not give Williams’s poetic language to either character: Betty is a shrill snob; Jim is a friendly guy who’s already pussy-whipped. His feelings about Tom, his sister Laura and mother Amanda are positive. For a few seconds, he even envies Tom’s writing aspirations, but forgets them when Betty reminds him of his bleeding hand from holding Laura’s shattered glass unicorn too tightly.
The young performers of The Acting Company handle their multiple roles and the tumultuous emotions that go with them gracefully. Michael Wilson’s direction is non-fussy, respecting all six authors and Tennessee Williams.
DESIRE is a unique tribute to and appreciation of Tennessee Williams.
59E59 is located at 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. DESIRE runs through Sunday, October 11, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays thru Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; Sundays at 3PM.
59559 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 753 5959
By Patricia Contino
Patricia Contino received her MFA from The New School Writing Program. She uses vacation time either at performances in other cities, The University of Iowa Writing Festival, or very long nights at the Metropolitan Opera. The lifelong NJ resident and fangirl is the administrator for Columbia University’s Masters of Bioethics Program.