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While everyone can agree on the masterworks of the Tennessee Williams canon, the playwright was prolific and his ambitions ranged over a broad swath of material. His 1953 Camino Real, now at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, was a disliked flop and, by the time he wrote his final full-length opus, A House Not Meant to Stand, in 1982, his last five plays to open on Broadway had not amassed 60 performances cumulatively. House was never seen in New York at all; after premiering at the Goodman in Chicago, it evidently disappeared completely until the current production at the Fountain Theater. With the centennial of the writer’s birth coming up March 26, Los Angeles is full of Williams activity, including a revival at Glendale’s A Noise Within company of Eccentricities of a Nightingale, his alternative (and much superior) version of Summer and Smoke.
Director Jessica Kubzansky has wrestled the immense difficulties of clarity and scope inherent in Camino Real with a steady, illuminating vision of how Williams orchestrated his complicated ensemble piece set in a mythical Latin-American frontier town, a dying world in which all humanity is presumably displaced and trapped. Enlisting student actors and crew from CalArts has made possible a large-scale mounting with 20 actors limning 34 roles and a shrewdly flexible set that greatly facilitates keeping the stage movement fluid and clear. Inevitably there are some less experienced players salted throughout, with some outside the ideal age range, but the tone of the language and focus on the themes are unwavering.
Matthew Goodrich stands out as Kilroy, a debased ingenue in the grand Williams manner credible both in his degeneration and his naivete, no easy task and not one often called for in young actors today. While some may find the legendary figures of Marguerite Gautier, Casanova and Don Quixote shy of expected stature, the frayed humanity that actors Marissa Chibas, Tim Cummings and Lenny Von Dohlen respectively emanate is far more touchingly pathetic. I have never cared for this drama in past encounters; now, seeing this capable rendering with the benefit of historical perspective, it arguably occupies a valiant and valuable place in the playwright’s body of work.
By the mid-1960s, Williams, evidently tired of reusing his old template, increasingly struck out into more experimental territory while remaining true to his values and sensibility. Critics were not tolerant of the deviation, which now has the appearance of healthy growth and development. A House Not Meant to Stand stands squarely, even self-consciously, under the influence of the French Theater of the Absurd, particularly Ionesco, although Williams’ theatrical language remains gloriously American Southern.
A Gothic tragicomedy that starts like a Tobacco Road for fallen genteelfolk, House is set in the gloriously decrepit McCorkle family home whose patriarch (Alan Blumenfeld) is out to find the hidden cash inheritance of his dementia-plagued spouse (Sandy Martin). There is an absent slatternly daughter, a dead gay son, rapacious and randy neighbors, all splayed out in conscious self-parody dedicated to the higher purpose of exposing human folly (not least the author’s own) and finding transcendent values of love and fortitude without ever sentimentalizing the moral rot.
Blumenfeld displays a daring brio that draws connections with his superb Father Ubu of a few seasons back, while Martin achieves the challenging catharsis from within the wife’s fading consciousness. Lisa Richards makes an extraordinary original creation of an aging sensualist and, in the less demanding part of the pregnant fiancee of the sole surviving McCorkle offspring, Virginia Newcomb supplies magnetism without venturing beyond the banal.
There are a great many unproduced Williams texts to be mined and, on the basis of the current offerings, they are likely to provide much of interest and beauty. Perhaps late Williams could be analogized to Stravinsky, whose turn to serialism in the latter part of his career disappointed adherents who wanted his sound to remain static, whereas the truest path for both was to continue to pursue modernity wherever it led them.
Venues: The Theatre @ Boston Court, Pasadena (Camino; runs through March 13); The Fountain Theater, Los Angeles (House; runs through April 17)
Produced by Carol Bixler and Kathleen M. Reinbold (for CalArts) with The Theatre @ Boston Court (Camino); Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor (Fountain Theater)
Casts: Marissa Chibas, Tim Cummings, Cristina Frias, Matthew Goodrich, Brian Tichnell, Kalean Ung, Lenny Von Dohlen and students from CalArts (Camino); Alan Bluenfeld, Sandy Martin, Lisa Richards, Robert Craighead, Virginia Newcomb, Chip Bent, Kevin High (House)
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Directors: Jessica Kubzansky; Simon Levy
Scenic designers: Dorothy Hoover; Jeff McLaughlin
Lighting designers: Ellie Rabinowitz, Ken Booth
Sound designers: Patrick Janssen; Peter Bayne
Costume designers: Silvanee E.B. Park; Naila Aladdin-Sanders
Music: Kwan Fai Lam
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