AISLE SAY Seattle

THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA

By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Jon Jory
ACT Theatre

700 Union Street, Seattle, WA 98101 / 206-292-7676
www.acttheatre.org

Reviewed by Christopher Comte

To call The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, the self-destructive protagonist of Tennessee Williams' scorching 1961 drama, "The Night Of The Iguana" 'pitiful' seems wholly inadequate in terms of fully describing his condition. But, what other word can encompass the emotional response evoked by this wretched wreck of a human being, feverishly clinging to the end of a fraying rope of an existence, sweating out his disgust with the carnal predations of women, with a religion bereft of awe and magnificence, and most importantly with his own rapacious desires and increasing mental instability? Especially when it becomes increasingly clear through the course of the play that Shannon is a man who's personal standards are set so high that no one, not himself -- not even God -- can possibly live up to them. In this regard, there's little doubt that he's a stand-in for his own creator, and in this, Williams' last great play, given a sweltering rendition by director Jon Jory, all of the late playwright's pent-up disaffection with the rampant cruelty of the world, and his own questioning of his artistic powers comes into full focus.

Critics frequently peg "Iguana" as the final part of a trilogy of Williams' master stage works, along with "The Glass Menagerie", and "A Streetcar Named Desire", all of which share certain loosely concealed biographical elements pointing to their author's life-long internalized conflicts over his own sexual identity, his at times morbid fascination with physical and psychological violence, and his ongoing struggle to define both an aesthetic and spiritual landscape in which his characters, and by extension himself, can exist outside of society's narrow definitions of "acceptable" morality. Despite frequent criticism of his latter works ("Orpheus Descending" and "Sweet Bird Of Youth" being primary examples) as "immoral" and "degenerate", a few insightful writers, such as the Norwegian author and essayist Jens Bjorneboe, and British critic Kenneth Tynan, see instead an attempt by Williams to subscribe to a higher sense of morality and humanism, in defense of those who think and act differently from the accepted norms, who seek out a different way of being, and who are inevitably destroyed by the great collective mass of society, who in turn despise and fear whatever reminds them of their own sense of suffering and isolation.

It is in fact these two qualities that drive many of Williams' alter egos, including Shannon (John Procaccino), the dissipated ex-priest who shepherds a busload of Texas bible school teachers to the decrepit Baja Coast resort where he periodically comes to crack up. Fever-addled, hounded by the harridan leader of the group (a delightfully bulldoggish Laura Kenny), and pursued by a teenaged musical prodigy whom he has recently deflowered (Lada Vishtak), he has strayed from his employer's "published itinerary", and has instead taken his group far off the beaten track, forcing them witness the immutable human suffering that surrounds them, and to which they remain purposefully blind. Now, he quite literally finds himself at the end of his rope, and his only desire is to exorcise the "spook" of his own inconsolable guilt and self-loathing at the atrocities his fellow humans inflict upon each other.

But, what he staggers into at the Costa Verde Hotel is hardly what he expects: the old owner has recently died, leaving his libidinous widow Maxine (Patricia Hedges) in charge. Meanwhile, a 97 year-old minor poet, Jonathan Coffin (Clayton Corzatte), and his artist granddaughter Hannah Jelkes (Suzanne Bouchard) have imposed themselves upon Maxine's grudging hospitality (curiously, a family of atrocious pro-Nazi Germans have been excised from the script), all of which sets up a series of confrontations that will plunge Shannon further into madness, yet in the end offer him some hope of redemption.

Jory's production sucks us into the dank, sweltering world of Shannon's subconscious at the outset. Paul Owen's veranda setting depicts the Costa Verde as a rabbit's warren of collapsing adobe and vine entangled arbors, symbolic of the character's shattered emotional state. Michael Wellborn's lighting scheme imbues the landscape with sunlight that at times reaches the intensity of a broiling interrogation lamp, while alternately providing relieving moments of cool moonlight presaging violent tropical thunderstorms, embellished by Sound Designer Dominic Cody Kramers, who heightens the sense of malaise with the ever-present buzzings and twitters of all manner of unseen fauna, while Edward R. Murrow relays a first-person account of the London Blitz from a tinny radio speaker. At the center of this natural and man-made dishabille lies Shannon's adored hammock, a tiny oasis of sanity and solace surrounded by the sublime implacability of the ever-encroaching jungle. The play is packed nearly to overflowing with Williams' signature symbolism, and while the physical environment certainly contributes to the heightened sense of allusion, it is the characters themselves, most notably in the triad of Shannon, Hannah and Maxine that understandably carry the brunt of the playwright's allegorical arguments.

Procaccino turns in one of his strongest performances in recent memory as the beleaguered Shannon; even from halfway up the steep audience rake, one can feel the poisoned sweat of fear and self-hate seeping from his pores like the by-product of some malarial infestation. Bouchard in contrast invests Hannah with a decidedly Zen-like acceptance of her state (prompted no doubt by Shannon's reference to her as a "skinny, standing Buddha") that eerily counterpoints Procaccino's gradual descent into mania; its the serene demeanor of someone whos been there herself.  At the same time her Hannah is clear-eyed enough to recognize within her elements of a similarly predacious nature, one predicated not on sexual satisfaction, but on simple survival. Their scenes, particularly in the second half of the play seethe with sexual and intellectual tension, and despite a couple of mis-blocked moments on Jory's part, they circle each other like wary, adversarial creatures; one determined to offer salvation, the other equally adamant in his belief that he is unworthy of such grace. And despite the stakes involved, Jory and his cast mine the play for moments of sly, ironic humor seldom seen in Williams' oeuvre.

Hodge's Maxine proves less than the intellectual match for these two, but she and Jory have wisely allow the character a gritty, down-to-earth sense of realism, rather than portraying her as a sort of Earth Mother antithesis to Hannah's cool, Selenic virginity. As a result, the two women avoid the trap of simply becoming embattled aspects of some symbolic "Madonna-whore complex", and instead define Shannon's prospects as being between a real, yet decidedly less-than-ideal relationship, or one that offers an ethereal but ultimately unsatisfying platonic experience. In the end, it's no great surprise which woman he chooses, but it's equally clear he's made the right choice, and for once Williams leaves his audience with a sense of hopefulness that perhaps Shannon, unlike most of his protagonists, has something to look forward to in his future.

Corzatte's doddering poet (a character based loosely on Williams' own grandfather) is a poignant synthesis of artistic and spiritual influences that eventually point Shannon on the path toward his own salvation. Although long past his prime, his spirit seems young in comparison to Shannon's world-weariness, and Corzatte gives the old man a spryness that, like a fading star burning off its last ergs of energy, is directed with single-minded purpose, and despite his own fading mental powers, toward completing his work, regardless of whether anyone will gauge it as having been worth the effort. One can easily envision Williams imagining himself in similar straits, and no doubt the play's final image reflects his symbolic desire to complete his own life's work before his impending demise.

"The Night Of The Iguana" at its heart represents Williams not only at his soul-searching best, but also at the apex of his lifetime of self-examination. In the character of T. Lawrence Shannon he has brought his string of doubting, conflicted and scarred protagonists to their ultimate conclusion: to a choice between either succumbing to madness or accepting a redemption that can never live up to expectation. Fortunately, this production more than lives up to our expectations, displaying a depth of feeling, both humorous and sublimely touching, that fully encompasses Williams' own soulful, at times maddening search for peace and solace.

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