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BWW Review: FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company

Production runs through April 9

BWW Review: FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company
Photo by James Kelley

Returning to the stage since the pandemic shutdown is one New Orleans theatre company that has been sorely missed. The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company and their current production of FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS is a comedic romp that will give audiences the best medicine of all.

FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS is a 90-minute collection of short plays featuring some of Williams' most memorable characters, such as Blanche Dubois (and a Maggie or two...), played by an ensemble cast of actors. The three short plays happen separately from each other, connected only by the actors who play them, which can mean going from Big Daddy to Amanda Wingfield in mere moments.

While Williams is known for his American Southern dramas, this evening of theatre, directed by Augustin J. Correro, is all satire akin to the likes of SNL. It's a refreshing approach to his writing that is an excellent pairing with TWTC's production style and a cast of actors who are as zany and committed as much as the material demands. And after facing a pandemic for two years, it feels good to tiptoe (or stomp) along the lines of melodrama.

Desire, Desire, Desire

BWW Review: FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company
Photo by James Kelley

First for the evening was 'DESIRE, DESIRE, DESIRE,' written by Christopher Durang. As a playwright, Durang's works are equal parts silly, intelligent, cynical, and over-the-top campy. He might be an acquired taste, but he is perfect for parodying Williams. With his experience writing delightfully deranged characters, it's exciting to see what he can do with Williams' dramatic characters.

Except it's not so much drama as it is hilarity.

In 'DESIRE, DESIRE, DESIRE,' Durang takes Williams' STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and somehow puts Blanche through even more of a ringer than in the original if you can believe it. The plot focuses on her living with Stanley (Mary Langley), who periodically bellows for Stella - whose trip to the store for Blanche's lemon coke has lasted for six years.

It's screwball funny and wickedly smart as characters from other Williams' plays appear suddenly at the Kowalskis' door so fast that you almost feel like you're watching a farce. Now Blanche must deal with not one but TWO Maggie the Cats (Lizzy Bruce and Jefther Osario) who steal Stanley after claiming him to be Brick. While STREETCAR and HOT TIN ROOF are the main targets, Durang also references several other plays that audience members will enjoy catching, such as GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS AND NIGHT MOTHER.

Everyone is so caught up in the absurdity that no one listens when Blanche prattles on about Belle Reve or her tragic first love. You know things are bad when Blanche yearns to be in STREETCAR. DESIRE showcases one of two standout performances for the night, with Breland Leon delivering an overdramatic, hypersexual Blanche.

For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls

BWW Review: FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company
Photo by James Kelley

The evening's second short and title story is 'FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS,' a wild parody of Williams' THE GLASS MENAGERIE, also written by Durang. TWTC veteran Tracey E. Collins plays the controlling yet often flummoxed matriarch Amanda Wingvalley. A fading Southern belle, Amanda tries to prep her hypochondriac son Lawrence to receive a "feminine caller." At the same time, she demeans Tom (Matthew Raetz) for escaping to the movies each night, after which he often brings home a stray sailor who may have "missed their boat."

Lawrence would rather spend time with his collection of glass cocktail stirrers since he is terrified of human interaction and tries to make himself scarce all evening. That won't do for Amanda, who wants her children to grow up and be happy. And mostly to just be gone.

Instead of the fragile Laura, who collects equally delicate glass animals, we get Roman Ellis as Lawrence, who is both heartbreaking and comical. His mother belittles him, and he refuses to leave the house because of his limp. And also his asthma. And also his eczema. No wonder he's hypersensitive. Terrified of the outside world, he remains glued to his glass cocktail swizzle sticks, which he lovingly, if not imaginatively, names.

Tonight, Tom has brought home his coworker Ginny, a loud-talking, hard of hearing but affable gal hilariously played by Langley. Lame jokes based on misheard misunderstandings abound. It's no wonder Amanda tries to face everything with charm when really, she just wants to hit somebody.

Swamp Gothic

BWW Review: FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company
Photo by James Kelley

In 'SWAMP GOTHIC,' the final story for the night, a handsome college student (Raetz) risks man-eating alligators and voodoo zombies to find his equally attractive missing best friend. It's SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER meets Swamp Thing in this Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa short.

While not as comically engaging as the two previous pieces, this story was visually stunning in part by Steve Schepker's set design, costume designs by Baylee Robertson, and the delightful alligator puppet by Kenneth Thompson.

But if you're like me and enjoy a little bit of horror kitsch in theatre, this one is still a gem.

You don't have to major in literature see these three plays, each featuring several laugh-out-loud moments. There are plenty of arcane references, literary and otherwise, so it will be even more amusing if you do know the references.

It's crucial when you do this kind of production that you're not mocking the original material. You still need to respect and pay homage, so it is always refreshing to see TWTC's productions as they dig into the material, find the jokes, and not make it one big caricature.

The production takes gender/sexuality liberties in content and casting, and while that may make some people clutch their pearls, this critic has to say that she can think of no better characterizations. The cast's hard work shows and really pays off at the end of the night with uproarious applause.

It's a zany homage to one of our greatest playwrights, and Williams himself would have loved it.

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