BWW Review: Tennessee Williams Theatre Company's ONE ARM is compelling story of loss and salvation
The Tennessee Williams Company's latest production may raise an eyebrow after seeing playwright Moises Kaufman's name attached, but rest assured, ONE ARM is most ardently Tennessee Williams' work. It is the latest production in keeping with the company's mission to bring the rare gems of Williams canon to broader audiences.
Conceived by Williams in the 1940's as a short story, ONE ARM may not hold a candle to THE GLASS MENAGERIE or A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, truly Williams' magnum opuses, but the story still possesses the idea of a fallen angel finding redemption through exile. The story of Ollie Olsen had been so deeply pierced into Williams mind that he found his way to the story again in the 1960's with intent to turn it into a screenplay. The film was never made, but Kaufman would discover Williams' drafts and would go forth in adapting ONE ARM into a crisp, 90-minute play.
ONE ARM is a portrait of Ollie Olsen, a young sailor of the Pacific Fleet and one-time lightweight boxing champion who loses his right arm after a car accident. Upon losing his arm, Ollie finds he has also lost the ability to feel any emotions. Unable to continue boxing, or find any reputable work, he turns to prostituting himself to older men he finds in parks and on street corners. His asymmetrical bearing inspires deep attraction and lust among the Johns - and occasional Jane - he meets though he would rather be whole than be compared with the beauty of antique sculpture. Via flashbacks, we see Ollie's life unfold as a sailor, to a boxer, to a male prostitute, and finally to a prisoner on death row.
Williams himself shares an odd fascination in his story, focusing on the obscurity of damaged prostitutes in the sex trade of the 1940's. There is a feverish pitch in ONE ARM as the tale literalizes the feeling of incompleteness both physically in Ollie and emotionally in the clients who meet him. We the audience aren't meant to fall for Ollie so much as ogle him. One can see why Williams tried to bring this story to life on screen in the 1960's with the dawning of a sexual revolution.
Going from page to stage, Kaufman takes tender care with Williams words. So much so he kept Williams amid it all by having characters speak the screenplay directions to establish each scene. Under the direction of Augustin J. Correro, a talented cast is presented with multipurpose roles to realize the story the way Williams intended.
Bringing chiseled marble to life is Adler Hyatt as Ollie Olsen. This role has firmly established Hyatt's ability as a leading actor. His portrait of a bitter man who suffers from loneliness and emotional disconnect is heady, and irresistible to watch. To create the illusion of a lost limb, his right arm is strapped behind his back except during the scenes before the accident. It is an effective device to create the illusion.
Disgusted with his life as he turns to rough trade for a living, we see Ollie gradually turn callous and almost mocking of his clients. These scenes are done via flashbacks and are so brief they give the cast, aside from Hyatt, opportunities for double or triple roles. As the play's primary narrator, David Williams also doubles as Sean, a Tennessee Williams-like writer Ollie meets in the French Quarter. Williams is engaging as he takes us on the rollercoaster of Ollie's life, painting Tennessee's words with gripping intent.
As the needful Johns, Bob Edes Jr. and Jackson Townsend are refreshing to watch. Both actors bring much-needed variety to their roles and are the show's source of campy humor when playing the parts of Mrs. Wire (Edes Jr.), Ollie's curmudgeon landlady or Cherry (Townsend), the owner of the brothel where Ollie works. Christopher Robinson, A.J. Golio, and Nelson Gonzales round out the rest of the supporting cast.
Rachel Whitman-Groves is the sole female of the cast, playing the parts of stripper to lonely nurse to a porn star. As the nurse, Whitman-Groves shows that she is as desperately lonely as Ollie, and tries to ensure she does not find him incomplete but turns on him the moment he admits his profession.
The play's most provocative scene comes near the end of the play and with it a moment of salvation. A.J. Golio as a nervous divinity student visits Ollie, who recently became receptive to the warmth given to him expressed by his customers in the letters they write to him on death row. It is a turning point for Ollie, who at last feels responsive to the compassion of others and seeks solace in one final embrace before death comes for him.
Joey Sauthoff's sparse set is a grim landscape, set up where the audience can see each other in a court-side fashion. It enhances the idea of ogling Ollie when you can see several pairs of eyes keeping track of him. Nick Shackleford's sound design adds mood shifts that help establish changes in emotion for Ollie and Lee Kyle's costume designs are used to significant effect.
ONE ARM is likely to appeal to devoted Williams addicts, though it is not likely to enthrall the masses. Still, the theme of loss, alienation, and desperation for compassion are themes that will always stand the test of time.
ONE ARM runs through Sunday, April 7 at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center.
Photo credit: James Kelley