AISLE SAY Twin Cities


Four one-acts by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Bain Boelke
at the Jungle Theater
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis / (612) 822-7063

Reviewed by Steve Schroer

After recent forays into postmodernism and other realms populated by stick figures, the Jungle Theater has returned to the kind of show it does best–not necessarily realistic, but based on a richly realistic understanding of character. The current bill of four short plays by Tennessee Williams, presented under the title of "Talk to Me Like the Rain," is the best thing I’ve seen at the Jungle in a long time.

All four pieces date from Williams's very earliest years as a playwright, a period obscure even to scholars. Knowing how young Williams was when he wrote them, and that they've rarely seen the light of day, you might be tempted to dismiss them as juvenilia. That would be a big mistake. These one-acts are obviously not as ambitious as the later plays, but they're no less beautifully written; taken on their own terms, they're perfect little gems. (Three of them, anyway.) And, not surprisingly, they're loaded with themes that Williams would develop throughout his career.

The first piece, "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen," is the greatest revelation. In a dingy hotel room, a forlorn, bedraggled woman (Barbara Kingsley) sits at the window; a sick man (Charles Schuminski) lies on the bed. Light glints on raindrops falling outside the window–a splendidly subtle technical effect. Somehow this looked familiar to me; and when the characters began to speak, trading monologues about desperation and decay, the actors almost singing their lines, a name flashed into my mind: Samuel Beckett. I had never before recognized how much Williams and Beckett had in common, but suddenly the similarities seemed legion. Although Williams's language is florid where Beckett's is stripped down, both playwrights take an obsessive interest in physical decrepitude, despair, and the stories people tell themselves when they've hit bottom. In this piece, the combination of circumstantial ambiguity with vivid, specific imagery is also pure Beckett. Finally, it's more lyrical than narrative, in that language is foregrounded and there are only a few beats of action between the characters–very typical of Beckett's short plays. The major difference, I guess, is that Beckett is a lot funnier than Williams (though Williams is not without humor).

In the pieces that follow, the Beckett parallels are muted, though they remain perceptible. "Hello From Bertha," the second member of the quartet, is the weakest, the only one that feels like a fragment. Buffy Sedlachek plays Bertha, a prostitute, who suffers from a pain in the abdomen–cancer? pregnancy?–that prevents her from plying her trade. (In Beckett, bodily illness always accompanies despair and moral decay.) Bertha may be dying; but hey, she's a Williams character, so she anticipates a gleaming future in which a former customer named Charlie will save her from her plight. Kingsley plays the narrow-eyed, nail-hard madam who threatens to heave Bertha out onto the street. There are some good moments here, but the scene as a whole is inconclusive and unsatisfying. In particular, Schuminski's character–a transvestite prostitute–is poorly integrated into the proceedings. (The author's fault, not the actor's or director's.)

Next up is "The Lady of Larkspur Lotion," a far more polished version of the same material. This time the two actresses reverse roles: It is now Sedlachek, as the owner of a fleabag hotel, who wants to evict her deadbeat tenant. As the title character, Kingsley is a faded Southern belle who, despite being reduced to prostitution, tries gamely to maintain a facade of gentility. (Cf. Beckett's many characters who have been destroyed by life but must go on living–a theme present in all these short Williams pieces.) What she refers to as lotion is actually hooch. Her castle in the air is a plantation in Brazil, and the man of her dreams a "rubber king"; but the knight who rides to her rescue turns out to be the alcoholic blocked writer (Schuminski) who lives down the hall. This lovely playlet ends with an explicit hommage to Anton Chekhov, in whose work Williams may have found a model for writing based more on character than on plot.

The last piece of the evening, "This Property is Condemned," is probably the best of all. Schuminski is a schoolboy playing hookey, Kingsley the young girl he encounters at a "furniture graveyard," a dump on a railroad embankment. She tells the story of her older sister Alba, who dropped out of school, became a whore for railroad men, and died at a very early age. The tale is horrifying, but Kingley's character romanticizes it; indeed, she has already begun to follow in her sister's footsteps. Schuminski's character is drawn to her lawlessness, but holds himself back–and in any event she doesn’t really want company in her fantasy world. This sort of pairing is common in Williams: the glamorously pathological type, and the mesmerized onlooker helpless to alter the other's destiny. Though Kingsley and Schuminski are at least thirty years older than the characters they portray here, I was completely persuaded by them. (The reader who gives a damn may recall my comment that the Jungle’s best shows don't depend on realism per se, but rather on a realistic approach to character.)

The evening's chief pleasure consists in watching Kingsley–a remarkable actress–play four very different roles, all very effectively. Schuminski and Sedlachek are also fine. The sound, attributed to three members of the creative team, is exceptional. I thought there were a few spots in the middle two pieces where the crisp pacing might have been broken up, in order to highlight certain dramatic moments; otherwise Bain Boelke's direction is superb.

This bill, first produced at the Jungle in 1991, was scheduled to be the first production in the Jungle's new space a year and a half ago, but had to be postponed due to construction delays. Before the postponement, Boelke told me in a private conversation that he considered these one-acts Williams's best work. Being at the time unacquainted with them, I assumed that Boelke was overstating the case. And maybe he was. But not by as much as you might think. These are remarkable plays, and ought to be produced more often. It won't be easy, however, to give them a finer production than the current one at the Jungle.

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