Tennessee Williams gave legendary actors Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson their most memorable roles — and without him, they may never have tied the knot. (The couple fell in love while performing his one-act play “This Property Is Condemned.”) Indeed, as the two recall during their amiably informal tribute “Tennessee Williams Remembered,” every major event in their marriage has been marked by a production of one of his plays. The show, directed by Gene Saks, includes personal anecdotes, jokes, excerpts from the playwright’s letters, poems and essays, plus a few scenes from the plays. With its casual air, the tribute seems more like a special event at the 92nd Street Y than a new theatrical work, though it would be ungracious to nit-pick while in such pleasantly engaging company.
Jackson first laid eyes on Williams while in rehearsal for the 1948 New York premiere of “Summer and Smoke.” Surprised by his “chubby, little physique and braying laugh,” she confesses, “I thought he looked more like Ohio than Tennessee.” But equally striking to her was his gentlemanly demeanor and the generous praise he lavished routinely on his actors.
Williams’ poetic, tenderhearted soul is vividly brought to life as the couple muse over his Southern manners, high-strung sensitivity and prodigal kindness. When Jackson was in a summer-stock version of “The Glass Menagerie” in Westport, Conn., she recalls, the playwright came backstage to tell her that the production’s cast was the best he had ever seen. When Jackson later told Geraldine Page what Williams had said, Page explained, “Anne, don’t you know that every cast Tennessee works with is the best one he’s ever seen?”
Wallach, who was asked by Williams to play the male lead in “The Rose Tattoo” shortly after he and his wife joined the Actors Studio, shares a letter Williams wrote to his producer and friend Cheryl Crawford about his first meeting with Anna Magnani, who they were hoping would consent to play the role of Serafina on Broadway. After a long and enchanting description of her Italian-style diva behavior, Williams pragmatically concludes with the request to check on Maureen Stapleton’s availability.
As it turned out, Stapleton and Wallach turned in acclaimed performances onstage in New York, while Magnani starred opposite Burt Lancaster in the film. Wallach, however, would soon get the chance to play one of Williams’ characters onscreen. Around the time of his daughter’s birth, he was asked by director Elia Kazan to star in “Baby Doll” opposite Carroll Baker. “We’re going to be rich,” he gleefully told his wife, before fishing a tea bag out of the garbage to make a second cup.
Jackson and Wallach enact moments not only from “Summer and Smoke” and “The Rose Tattoo” but also from “Camino Real,” the more experimental work for which Williams was, in his own words, “crucified by the critics.” Wallach, who performed in the short-lived New Haven tryout, remembers the author’s devastation at the reviews. Walter Kerr called it “the worst play written by the best playwright of his generation,” a remark that prompted Williams to write an eloquent letter to the New York Herald Tribune in his own defense.
When later invited to read his poetry at the 92nd Street Y, the playwright said the only material he could possibly present was his “winged bird,” “Camino Real.” With Wallach at his side in the part of Kilroy, Williams began plowing through the play scene by scene. Several vodkas into the evening, he decided he wouldn’t mind reciting a poem after all —no matter that he could hardly stand without wobbling.
Amused by the memory of their friend’s spontaneity, Wallach and Jackson follow suit, turning Williams’ darkly comic lyric “The Gold Tooth Women” into a kind of senior citizen rap number.
There’s obviously no getting around the corny side of Jackson and Wallach’s jaunty memorial, which, truth to tell, trades a bit heavily on the couple’s down-to-earth friendliness. Saks’ no-frills production certainly doesn’t help matters, accentuating as it does the thrown-together feeling of the piece.
But in a manner as relaxed as it is unabashedly nostalgic, “Tennessee Williams Remembered” offers a personal glimpse at America’s most beloved dramatist through the eyes of a talented couple who had the good fortune to know the man both onstage and off.