The Hartford Stage’s new artistic director, Michael Wilson, is readying a comprehensive look at one of America’s leading playwrights, Tennessee Williams. At least one full-length production a year of the Southern gentleman’s work is being planned. And, said Wilson, who took the reigns of the Hartford in May, this is not your father’s Tennessee.
“Some of the work has never been produced, some of it never on the East Coast,” said Wilson eagerly, adding with palpable displeasure, “and a lot of them were done in a really pedestrian fashion.”
So no more of that. Wilson, who credits Williams’ preoccupation with “otherness and outsiders” as “the reason I got into theater,” has one notable Williams accomplishment already under his belt: The Off Broadway premiere of “The Red Devil Battery Sign” bowed to mixed reviews, but reviews that decidedly praised Wilson’s helming.
The first installment of the Williams Marathon, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” goes into rehearsal this week; it will bow at the Hartford Stage on Sept. 16. Annalee Jefferies, who collaborated with Wilson on 15 previous productions, will play Blanche DuBois. The Williams Marathon ’98 also includes a reading series comprising plays written about the New Orleans French Quarter: “Auto-Da-Fe” (1941); “The Lady of Larkspur Lotion” and “Lord Byron’s Love Letter” (both 1942); and “Portrait of a Madonna” (1946).
All four works will be read by Ellen Burstyn and Polly Holliday. The series continues later with different actors reading “The Mutilated” (1966) and “Vieux Carre” (1977).
“People want to shoehorn him (Williams) into just having written about sin, sex and the South, but ‘Red Devil,’ like so many of his other works, was more than just that,” Wilson said. “It’s (‘Red Devil’) about a woman whose sexually hungry but also is plugged into the height of the Watergate scandal. It’s a piece that captured the American paranoia about government power.”
Far from being a one-trick pony, though, Wilson also has a rather high-profile non-Williams production set for next year. Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” will star Estelle Parsons. Burstyn will return to the stage in Horton Foote’s “The Death of Papa” in May, co-starring with Matthew Broderick through the month of June next year.