One idea was front and center Wednesday night at the Chapel Theatre: We think we know Tennessee Williams, but we really don’t. As the College of Charleston makes clear in their production Five by Tenn: One-Act Plays by Tennessee Williams, there is more to Williams’ genius than the faded Southern belles and lonely, frustrated men that made him so rightfully famous.
The five plays featured include a couple that one would hardly guess were written by Williams: The Municipal Abattoir explores the consequences of fascism on the human psyche, while A Chalky White Substance shows us a barren, loveless world after a nuclear apocalypse.
The other three pieces tread on more familiar ground. The Lady of Larkspur Lotion reveals the delusions that a destitute prostitute and an unsuccessful young writer employ to ward off the hopelessness of their lives in a French Quarter boardinghouse; Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen explores the self-destruction of a hopeless couple; and The Pretty Trap, which later became The Glass Menagerie, shows us a determinedly elegant Southern woman’s desperate attempt to see her shy daughter married.
In an evening of excellent acting, a few students really stood out. Andie Boyd as the delusional prostitute in The Lady of Larkspur Lotion — a character that is reminiscent of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire — embodied the shaky pride of a woman who has given up all hope of better circumstances, but cannot stop herself from wishing for them. In The Municipal Abattoir, Cameron Christensen portrayed the fear-stricken clerk who is voluntarily going to his own execution with an empathy that evoked the true horror of an individual who cannot defy authority, even to save his own skin.
George Metropolis and Marguerite Conroy as the disconnected couple in Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen are moving in their portrayals of two people living in very different dreamworlds: one, the unnamed Man’s, fueled by alcohol and irresponsibility, and the Woman’s woven out of endless waiting and marital neglect.
Anna Stephenson, who plays the mother, Amanda, in The Pretty Trap, seems to understand her character with a maturity beyond her years. Stephenson expertly captures the tension between Amanda’s private self, where she is a single mother working demeaning jobs to support her children, and her public, halfway imagined self, where she is a Southern lady of excellent breeding. What is so interesting about Amanda is that it is in her public persona that she feels the most genuine; she is never comfortable with her children the way she is as a hostess, entertaining her daughter’s “gentleman caller.” This funnier, more hopeful predecessor to The Glass Menagerie is a wonderful piece of drama, and it is fascinating to watch the familiar story play out without the veil of anguish that lays like a mist over the later play.
Finally, A Chalky White Substance earns praise not for a single actor, but for its daring and experimental execution. This post-apocalyptic drama is directed by Jay Ball, who borrows from the Japanese artistic form of “Butoh,” or the “darkness dance” to tell the story of two men struggling to trust each other in a society where trust has no place. Butoh is Japan’s artistic response to the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and its inclusion in this piece acts as a reminder that the story’s nuclear wasteland actually existed, and could again. This, combined with the use of harsh sound effects, strobe lighting, and the cast’s total commitment to their challenging characters, makes this already unsettling piece truly frightening.
Let’s hope that CofC continues to explore the work of this great American playwright. As evidenced in the talkback session after the show, they’ve got not only the artistic talent, but the scholarly strength to do him justice.
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