BWW Review: THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA Kicks Off The Gamm's New Season
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA is among Tennessee Williams' least-know plays, but still one that resulted in over 300 performances on Broadway and a 1964 film version starring Richard Burton and directed by John Huston. Unlike Williams' more famous works, it's likely that audiences don't know much about this play going into it, and while there are some interesting characters and poignant lines, it becomes easy to see why this play is not often produced. The double whammy of a tedious and heavy-handed script paired with performances that beg for more nuance leave this first production in The Gamm's new Warwick location an unfortunate slog.
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA takes place of the course of a day at the Costa Verde hotel in Mexico. Maxine (Deb Martin), the proprietor, is recently widowed, and her old friend Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Tony Estrella) works for Blake Travel leading a busful of teachers from a Baptist college to her establishment. Other residents of the hotel include a couple of Nazis (literally) who speak only German, and Maxine's Mexican staff who speak only Spanish. Later, a woman named Hannah (Jeanine Kane) and her grandfather (Sam Babbitt) arrive.
The protagonist, who is most often addressed as Shannon, is a complicated character who trained as an Episcopal minister, but who was forced to leave the church due to his dalliance with an underage girl. He also suffers depression, alcoholism and a general malaise that seems to spill out of his every pore. He is an incredibly unsympathetic character, but not quite active enough to be a villain. It's always challenging to center a work around a character of this type because there has to still be something for the audience to find compelling or empathetic, and unfortunately that's where Estrella's performance falters.
There are bits of comic levity--Michelle Walker steals the show as the no-nonsense teacher Miss Fellowes, who has no time for Shannon's shirking of his tour guide duties; and an underutilized Daraja Hinds as Charlotte, a 17-year-old who has a massive crush on Shannon, and with whom he has made another mistake. But the bulk of the play is concerned with Shannon's demons, and Estrella chooses to assume from the outset the audience will be on his side, rather than give them a bit of humanity to latch onto. Tennessee Williams has written many, many unsympathetic men, but they become compelling nonetheless. Unfortunately, Estrella's Shannon comes across as a pathetic man who expects everyone else to fix his problems. The only reason he's come to the Casa Verde is so that Maxine will take care of him, and he gives little regard to the fact that she's recently widowed, in a lot of debt and feeling very raw.
Shannon also latches onto Hannah once she arrives at the hotel. In her, he seems to see the kind of selfless woman who would take care of him, but not challenge him like Maxine does. Jeanine Kane is fantastic in this role. Hannah is sweet and kind, but also a cunning survivor, which is an interesting dichotomy played with a cheerfulness that only just hints at how overwhelmed and scared she actually is.
Gamm regulars will be pleased to hear that the new theatre space in Warwick is just as intimate as it was in Pawtucket. In fact, it seems like the Pawtucket theatre was put on a truck and transported to Jefferson Boulevard. It's almost spooky. Patrick Lynch's sets are minimalist, but excellent and seem perfectly tropical; and the lighting and sound design set the mood flawlessly.
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA was originally written as a one-act, and now feels like a bloated albatross in this lengthy structure. It makes no apologies for being a script that's difficult, but where it falters most in the performances that fail to elicit any much-needed empathy from the audience. It's commendable for The Gamm to try something out of the familiar, but in this case, it doesn't quite work.
The Night of the Iguana runs from October 11-November 4 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Tickets are $44, $52 and $60; preview performances (October 11-14) are $33. Call 401-723-4266 or order online at gammtheatre.org.