BWW Reviews: NIGHT OF THE IGUANA Heats Up EPAC Stage
There are those who suggest that Tennessee Williams' THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA is a tale told, though not by an idiot, about the moribund, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. As directed by Edward R. Fernandez at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, however, it accomplishes the goal of most great plays – it depicts transformation, even though it's hopelessly ephemeral. No one's life is vastly changed. No one has made any great decisions, but the leading character, even while taking his path of least resistance, recognizes, however briefly, that his life could be different. And while NEXT TO NORMAL may be the first musical to address mental illness head-on, it's worth remembering that in stage drama, Tennessee Williams is America's poet laureate of psychological disturbance; IGUANA is, in its essence and at its best, a searing depiction of a man's mental trip through a hell that he unintentionally has managed to construct.
If there is indeed a dark night of the soul, there is none better to endure it than a man of the cloth. The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, "Shannon" to almost all, is played by Tim Riggs with an air of impending disaster clinging to him as closely as the five o'clock shadow that he refuses to let the hotel owner, Maxine, shave off of him. Riggs' Shannon is not a man on The Edge of insanity; he's already taken the leap off the diving board and for the bulk of the play is suspended in a triple somersault waiting to hit the deep waters. Riggs' nervous edginess is palpable and intensely human. I could only wish that his Southern accent (which isn't a Virginia one, though Shannon's a "Virginia gentleman") were slightly less emphatic and a bit more gently southeastern and less distracting.
Tricia Corcoran as hotel proprietor and very merry widow Maxine, and Kristie Ohlinger as artist Hannah Jelkes, are Shannon's cross-currents on the veranda at Maxine's shabby Mexican beach hotel. And a shabby hotel it is – the set in EPAC's staging is a character in its own right, the perfect manifestation of every run-down Caribbean hotel ever imagined, its veranda begging for standing torches, large allegedly tropical alcoholic beverages, and raucous dancing to heavy percussion. Instead, however, it is in Williams' world the stage upon which Shannon engages in a bewildered paso doble with both the blowsy Maxine and the staid Hannah, and Richard Wolf Spencer deserves serious kudos for creating its derelict charm.
Maxine claims to know Shannon better than Hannah does when she flies into a jealous fit in Act Two. Yet each of them knows Shannon better than the other does, in totally different ways. Maxine knows how to handle Shannon when he breaks down; Hannah knows Shannon's breaking down from the inside, having been there herself. Both Maxine and Hannah are strong stage characters, although Hannah is the stronger individual within. Corcoran's Maxine is a huge presence on stage; she feels twice her actual size, coming on and off stage like the force of nature that she is. Maxine is an earth goddess, offering herself with abandon to all, while Ohlinger's Hannah is not so much "spinsterish" (as the character is often described) as iron-willed and determined; she is the ascetic intellectual, the Athena to Corcoran's abundant Persephone, and I find she brings a certain Hepburn-like austerity and economy to her performance.
It is no wonder that Shannon is torn between the two women – one offers every simple earthy pleasure he desires and usually acts upon without thinking; the other speaks to the man who obtained a ministerial degree from a respected university. One is a gift, the other a challenge. Shannon is two men warring within himself within his breakdown, and Maxine and Hannah are the avatars each of those men responds to.
Such a drama requires a poet to sing of it, and that poet comes in the form of "Nonno," Hannah's grandfather, with whom she travels while he struggles to finish his last poem. One of the flaws in Williams' writing is that Nonno's fate within the play is obvious early on, but John Kleimo's Nonno makes his way through the show with a leonine countenance that makes him completely believable as an elderly man of letters and self-perceived great man. The audience wants to believe him, too; Kleimo can make the audience wince along with Hannah when Nonno becomes disoriented and slips out of his role as Great Poet, and rejoice with her, even aware (as Hannah seems not to be) of what will happen when he completes his last work.
Miss Fellowes, the fiery Baptist college teacher and chaperone of the very young Charlotte Goodall, is played by Elizabeth Pattey. Pattey is no Grayson Hall (who played the part with amazing fierceness and grandeur in John Huston's imperfect film version), but she brings an amazing drill-sergeant quality to her performance that suggests a woman who has never not gotten her own way. It is likely true that she and Shannon cannot tolerate each other because they are too much alike. Although it's common to make Judith Fellowes perhaps too obviously a "butch dyke" when playing her, which would never be tolerated by a Baptist women's college in the 1940's, I do think that Pattey's Fellowes is perhaps a bit too subtle – Shannon's accusation of her lesbianism may come a little too much out of the blue here, as her relationship to Charlotte lacks the clearly repressed jealousy needed to hint at that. Hannah Smith's Charlotte, the alleged victim of Shannon's statutory rape, is a fine portrayal of a girl who doesn't understand that the word "seduced" is usually followed by "abandoned".
IGUANA is probably notable as the only play in which the bombing of Britain can be comic relief, but the quartet of Nazi German tourists at the hotel provide the only real lightness in the show. Although there is humor in the dialogue between the main characters, the unrelenting grimness of their situation prevents it from being the sort of tension breaker that the German beach frolickers provide. Fernandez does not make The Common mistake of deleting them from the play – not only are they the comic relief element, but they add the historical perspective that the play requires.
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA plays through September 22 at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, 320 Cocalico Street, Ephrata. For tickets call 717-733-7966 or visit www.SharadinBiglerTheatre.com.
Photo credit: Theresa Kreider