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The Eccentricities of a Nightingale/by Tennessee Williams/directed by Dana Jackson/PRT (Pacific Resident Theatre)/extended through September 25

1948's Summer and Smoke was rewritten in the 60s by Tennessee Williams and what resulted was a more clearly structured/themed play with the same central characters entitled The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Music teacher Miss Alma (Ginna Carter), daughter of an Episcopal minister Reverend Winemiller (Brad Greenquist), was passionately in love with her neighbor young Dr. John Buchanan (Andrew Dits) and when that love was unrequited rather than become a miserable spinster, she turned to prostitution. Now in a rare and lovely production of the refined play at PRT, poetic spirit is alive and well in Miss Alma, the Spanish word for soul.

Williams removed the violent and stereotypical plot elements of Summer and Smoke, creating a more gentle Dr. John and with the addition of a doting mother (Rita Obermeyer), his John becomes a mama's boy incapable of sharing love. He is cold whereas Alma is hot, consumed with passion. In Eccentricities, Alma and John consummate their fondness for one another with a sexual encounter, that despite its much less than perfect results, helps to explain Alma's final choice. Spiritual/earthly pleasures tear at Miss Alma, who seems rather an early version of Williams' Blanche Du Bois. Alma's mother (Mary Jo Deschanel) is slowly going insane like Blanche and Williams' own mother and sister; as it seems to run in the family, it is no small wonder that Alma attempts to veer away from the destiny of gloom that hangs over her like a cloud.

Williams has divided the play into three sections: The Feelings of a Singer, The Tenderness of a Mother and A Cavalier's Plume. Each part analyzes a female character's issues and her reactions to them. The first Feelings of a Singer shows Miss Alma's complex emotions toward her position of integrity in the community as the minister's daughter. She is further encumbered with being forced to care for a mother on the verge of insanity. The second part, Tenderness of a Mother, by contrast, shows John's actively doting mother, who will do anything to keep her son upwardly mobile...and away from the eccentric Miss Alma. She is the reverse of Alma's mother, who exists passively, engaged in only memories of the past. The third part of the play A Cavalier's Plume is the long awaited union of Alma and John, an imperfect one to be sure, but one that determines the fate of Alma, who like her mother's sister, Aunt Albertine, chose to lead a life of ill-repute and sorrow, leaving the safe and proper one behind. In Tennessee Williams language, one might say that although the willful Mrs. Buchanan seems to have it all, she is more of a loser than the free-spirited Alma, who entrusts her livelihood to the kindness of strangers. At least Alma is kind...and happy.

Under Jackson's cautious and skilled direction, the acting ensemble are stellar. Carter's Miss Alma is quite unlike any I have seen in past productions of the play. Most American actresses work from the inside out, whereas Carter seems to work from the outside in. Some may disagree with me, but her emphasis on Alma's peculiar mannerisms like her consistent smile and laughter seems showy. Yes, it's described in the script, but... in the first couple of scenes, she overplays Alma's affectations, jittery gestures and nervous facial expressions. It's almost too much, but in the later scenes where she opens up with Dr. John, her deep emotional connection to Alma's loneliness is completely heartfelt and intelligently portrayed, showing a clear contrast to her earlier behavior. Her final scene in total transformation is nothing short of miraculous. Carter's performance is one to watch, as her interpretation is not only intriguing, but tends to add newfound dimension and give the play a refreshing look. Reminding me of a young Kathy Bates in looks and intensity, I add Ginna Carter to LA's list of splendid character actresses!

Dits does well as John, making him appropriately reserved, cool...and ultimately caring. He is especially appealing as he attempts, in a simple gesture, to warm Alma's fingers. Obermeyer is superb as the obsessive Mrs. Buchanan, consistently keeping her at ground level, and Deschanel is totally real in her rather underplayed portrayal of Mrs. Winemiller. The members of Alma's literary club steal that second act scene especially Joan Chodorow as the gossipy and outspoken Mrs. Bassett, Amy Huntington as the uber confused Rosemary, Choppy Guilotte as nerdy follow.the.fold Vernon and Paul Anderson who brings quiet charm to the awkwardly unappealing Roger Doremus. Greenquist is the epitome of stern task master as Reverend Winemiller and Zachary Kanner (stepping in for Derek Chariton) perfectly naive as the Salesman.

Kudos to the creative team for their fine work: set designer Kis Knekt, lighting designer Ken Booth, sound Christopher Mascatiello and costume designer Christine Cover Ferro, whose period apparel are just right. I particularly liked the last costume for Alma with its bright red cape.

Summer and Smoke receives more attention and productions than the revised Eccentricities, so it is a treat to see the latter performed, especially because it is one of Tennessee Williams' favorites. Mine too, as Williams made Alma's character much more appealing, stronger... and sympathetic than in the earlier play. Go see this wonderful production, which has been extended by popular demand until September 25!

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