note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Susan Daniels;
REPRINTED BY PERMISSION FROM THE PATRIOT LEDGER
With ripples to the heart and tickles to the funny bone, “Five by Tenn,” a program of Boston premiere one-act plays by poet Tennessee Williams, dramatizes the story of this great American playwright’s life in a production by SpeakEasy Stage Company that is both poignant and palpable.
Featuring works from every major period of his life, the staging, running at the Calderwood Pavilion through February 25, follows the 2005 publication of thirteen newly discovered plays by Williams, written primarily between the late 1930s and 1950s.
Director Scott Edmiston has selected five of these plays - plus obtained special permission from the Williams estate to include a scene from “Vieux Carre” (1977), one of his last full-length Broadway plays - and wisely arranged them in a narrative arc that traces the development of Williams’ life from young poet to aging bard.
Peppered with the Williams’ usual array of misfits, lost souls, wounded characters, and domineering figures, “Five by Tenn” smoothly glides through the thematic elements of the playwright’s career, exploring provocative social and sexual subject matter.
Though six separate plays, there is a feeling of cohesiveness. This is primarily due to the poetic flavor flowing from Williams’ pen as well as the ensemble work amongst the talented group of actors, all of whom perform multiple roles.
“These Are The Stairs You Got to Watch” takes place in the Joy Rio movie theater, where a young usher (Williams’ mouthpiece) learns about the secret world of sensuality. With seven roles and a voice over of 1940s movie star Joan Bennett, the opening salvo introduces the eight actors - Ellen Adair, Christopher Brophy, Shakespeare & Company artistic associate Allyn Burrows, Mary Klug, 2005 IRNE Award recipient Will McGarrahan, Eric Rubbe, long-time Trinity Repertory Company member Anne Scurria, and William Young - who mix, mingle, or pair-off throughout the remaining five plays.
Written in the late 1930s, “Summer At The Lake” showcases Scurria’s formidable acting chops and leaves no doubt as to why she is one of the Tony Award-winning Rep’s favorites. Exploring the mother and son conflict similar to the one found in “The Glass Menagerie,” “Summer” allows Scurria to turn in a riveting portrayal of Mrs. Fenway, a character based on Williams’ high strung and highly vivacious mother. The play is also a homage to Williams’ favorite playwright, Anton Chekhov, whose play, “The Seagull,’ depicts a class of artists on summer vacation confronting their diminishing expectations of life, love, and art, with the Williams’ stand-in trying to escape the tyranny of his family.
A scene from “Vieux Carre” (1977), which presents Williams’ first stage depiction of intimacy between men, dramatizes the playwright’s personal and creative awakening after leaving his puritanical family home in St. Louis for the bohemian decadence and sexual freedom of New Orleans. “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens” reveals the poet’s awareness of the desperation of love. Influenced by Shakespeare’s “Richard 11,” the pivotal character, a gay man in drag, would have been unproducable in 1957 when it is believed Williams wrote it.
Penned in 1966 and premiered on PBS TV in 1970, “I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow” confronts the passage of time in a style similar to the theatre of absurd, popularized by Pinter, Sartre, and Beckett. “Mister Paradise,” the final play in the line-up, allows veteran actor William Young to portray an aged Williams in a deeply moving and nuanced performance that seems to capture elements throughout the haunted and haunting playwright’s life.
With Edmiston, an Elliot Norton Award winner and six-time IRNE nominee for best director, at the helm, the creative team evokes the mood of Williams’ works, especially set designer Janie E. Howland’s wrought iron stairway, which offers a visually strong connection to the graceful streets of New Orleans.
Noted for uniting dramatic poetry to naturalism, Williams’ first success came in 1945 with “The Glass Menagerie, which ran for over a year on Broadway, followed two years later by “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a Pulitzer Prize winner. As an artist, he gleaned the events from his life, transforming family, friends, and lovers into some of the most indelible stage characters of the twentieth century. Half a dozen plays in one? Technically, yes. But with “Five by Ten” it is more like a living time line of the great playwright's life.
“Five by Tenn,” through 2/25; Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston. Tickets are $42-$46. For tickets, call 617-933-8600 or visit BostonTheatreScene.com.