BWW Review: DESIRE: Tennessee Williams in Others' Words
An Evening of Plays Based on Six Short Stories by Tennessee Williams
Written by Elizabeth Egloff (Attack of the Giant Tent Worms), Marcus Gardley (Desire Quenched by Touch), Rebecca Gilman (The Field of Blue Children), David Grimm (Oriflamme), John Guare (You Lied to Me About Centralia), Beth Henley (The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin); Direction & Scenic Design, David J. Miller; Costume Design, ElizaBeth Cole Sheehan; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, Jay Mobley; Stage Manager, Lexie Lankiewicz
CAST (in alphabetical order): Lindsay Beamish, Margaret Dransfield, Katie Flanagan, Margaret McFadden, Eric McGowan, Alexander Rankine, Damon Singletary, Sam Terry, Jon Vellante
Performances through May 20th by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Plaza Black Box Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.ZeitgeistStage.com
Zeitgeist Stage Company introduces eight new faces in its production of Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Short Stories by Tennessee Williams. Joining with Damon Singletary, a veteran of a trio of ZSC shows, they meld into an impressive ensemble to convey the unusual and flawed characters from the mind of Williams and the pens of half a dozen eclectic playwrights. The program was the brainchild of Michael Wilson, then the Artistic Director of Hartford Stage when he commissioned the adaptations of Williams' short stories. A self-admitted aficionado of Williams, Director David J. Miller mixes and matches his cast to meet the challenge of portraying diverse personalities.
The six plays are evenly split between two acts. The first three stories are more narrow in their scope than the trio after intermission, but their unusual subjects make them interesting and they feature good work from the actors. The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin (Beth Henley) oozes the atmosphere of a small southern town in 1920 where Roe (Margaret McFadden) is a young piano student who shows promise. However, when she is paired with violin prodigy Richard Miles (Sam Terry), her infatuation with the boy becomes like Kryptonite to Superman, gradually weakening her abilities until she is virtually without talent. Her teacher Miss Alley (Margaret Dransfield) goes from beaming with pride over Roe to lip-curling disdain.
Rodney/Hooch (Singletary) is a man minding his own business on a park bench when Anna (Lindsay Beamish) sashays by in a revealing, tomato-red cocktail dress in Oriflamme (David Grimm). The visual cues in this piece tell you all you need to know about these people in short order. Singletary's twinkling, leering eyes and Beamish's kittenish demeanor are the gateways into their spot on portrayals. Attack of the Giant Tent Worms (Elizabeth Egloff) is set on Cape Cod where the arguments of a dysfunctional married couple (Dransfield, Alexander Rankine) belie their serene surroundings. He is maniacally obsessed with fighting off tent worms that are attacking the cottage and she drinks too much. Wait for the payoff to understand the reasons that lie beneath their unhealthy behavior.
My favorite of the half dozen plays opens the second act. Based on the short story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," later developed by Willliams into The Glass Menagerie, John Guare's You Lied to Me About Centralia is an exquisitely-written conversation between Jim, the Gentleman Caller, and his fiancée (who he refers to in the original play, but who does not appear in it). Katie Flanagan is a quintessential, proper southern belle, judgmental and dripping with self-involvement. As she goes on and on, telling her story of trying to get money from a rich uncle to help pay for their wedding, Eric McGowan listens with the forced patience of a man in a department store waiting while his wife tries on dresses. When it is his turn to speak and relate the events of his evening with the Wingfield family, McGowan's recital is both poetic and animated.
Desire Quenched by Touch (Marcus Gardley) is a cross between Sweeney Todd and Silence of the Lambs, but Singletary's character, Fountaine Le Grand, is much more socialized than the demon barber or Hannibal Lecter. A detective (Rankine) questions Le Grand about the disappearance of Anthony Burns (Terry), a wealthy young man who has been visiting Le Grand for weekly massage sessions. Burns' depravity seems to know no bounds and Le Grand spirals down the rabbit hole with him, until there is no turning back.
The final entry, The Field of Blue Children (Rebecca Gilman), feels most familiar as it takes place in the present on a university campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Stock characters such as sorority girls, BMOC jock, and sensitive poet are developed and portrayed with nuance. It may be a cliché for the poet to be named Dylan, but he is fully realized by Jon Vellante with a combination of geekiness, ardor, and warmth. Beamish, Flanagan, and McFadden embody shallow mean girls, and McGowan is goofy and dull as the jock. Dransfield convincingly walks the tightrope between her comfortable sorority world and her new world as seen through the eyes and other body parts of Dylan.
Although the quality of each of the plays varies, the gestalt of Desire is that all of them have entertainment value as they explore themes often visited by Williams, among them love, innocence, isolation, and loss. The members of the ensemble all work well together, and there are more than a few outstanding performances. Terry literally and figuratively bares all in the penultimate play, and Dransfield is magical in her ability to transform from one scene to the next. Miller always finds good people who fit the roles, but let's hope that we will see more of these newcomers in future Zeitgeist Stage productions.
Photo credit: Richard Hall/Silverline Images (Jon Vellante, Margaret Dransfield, Eric McGowan)