Reviewed by Will Stackman
Speakeasy Stage Company's Boston-area premiere of "Five by Tenn," a collection of short one-acts, three of which were unpublished during the playwright's lifetime, follows a program presented at the Kennedy Center in 2004. The five scripts, "These are the Stairs You've Got to Watch"--a dark comedy finished in 1948--"Summer on the Lake"(late '30s)--an homage to "The Seagull" and a precursor for "The Glass Menagerie "--"And Tell Sad Stories of Queens"--a two scene domestic drama from 1957 with a touch of "Streetcar"--plus the second scene from "Vieux Carre"--which ran on Broadway in 1977 and a pair of playlets "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow"-- an Absurdist sketch seen on PBS in 1970 segueing into "Mr. Paradise"--a coda for the evening, with no certain date of composition. The sequence traces Williams' life and aspirations from callow youth, through coming out, to his decline. Award-winning director Scott Edmiston has carefully modulated the arc of the action to let the author's words and recurring themes be plainly heard.
Edmiston has used a superb ensemble cast to create a fluid, continually interesting two act show on Janie. E. Howland's unit set with its echoes of Williams' favorite stomping ground, New Orleans' Vieux Carre. Eric Rubbe, is back in town to play a dreamy young poet, through various dramas, first as a shy movie usher, then as a tormented young man, and finally, as the poet's younger self in Edmiston's reimagined version of "...Tomorrow." Trinity veteran, Anne Scurria, plays his mother, Mrs. Fenway, in "Summer on the Lake". Scurria is fresh from the Public Theatre revival of "Ruby Sunrise." Her proto-Amanda suggests that her home company should consider starring her in Williams first Broadway success. Two other senior actors with years of credits between them, Mary Krug and William Young, appear in several of the plays. Krug is most notable as Mrs. Fenway's taciturn maid. She will be seen opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in an upcoming Martin Scorcese film. Young appears as a writer in decline, even close to death in the final two playlets.
Shakespeare & Co.s Allyn Burrows appears as Candy Darling, a transvestite in "...Queens" on either side of the intermission. He plays the role with the panache he showed last summer as "King John for S&C. Opposite him as Karl, a rough sailor, is Christopher Brophy, who played the redneck for Speakeasy's hit "Take Me Out" last spring. Brophy also appears in the opening play as a fed-up movie usher named Carl. In "Vieux Carre", IRNE winner Will McGarrahan plays a tubercular jaded artist, Nightingale, as only he can, helping the miserable young poet come out. Finally, Ellen Adair, shows up in the last scene as a starry-eyed Bryn Mawr senior determined to bring Young's "Anthony Paradise", a forgotten poet, back out of obscurity. She appears earlier in "...Stairs..." as a promiscuous teenager. Even if the material weren't so intriguing, especially to those familiar with Williams more successful work, the general quality of the performance would stand on its own.
While individual cast members have their moments to shine, it's a superb ensemble which binds the show together. Each actor contributes to an overall appreciation of Williams' poetic potential as displayed in these less works. They've all been excellently costumed by Gail Astrid Buckley with attention to time and place. Karen Perlow's lighting helps turn Howland's two level set into a movie theatre, a flop house, or Candy's "Japanese" digs, while Dewey Dellay's original score and soundscape adds a finishing touch. "...Queens" is the centerpiece of the evening, but even here, the emphasis is upon self-expression and accomplishment, and the awful fear of getting old and losing touch. Young is particularly effective at expressing this in the last pair of pieces, giving us two portraits of decline and potential rebirth, playing first off Rubbe as the young dreamer once again and Adair as a feminine ideal of sorts.