Like a tasty plate of hors d’oeuvres, five delicious one-acts open the Kennedy Center’s four-month festival “Tennessee Williams Explored,” superbly mounted by D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater. Four of them are world premieres.
Selected and staged by the theater’s artistic director, Michael Kahn, from a trove of shorts by Williams, the plays are personal but not strictly autobiographical. They’re sensitively interpreted by a superb cast that includes Joan van Ark, Kathleen Chalfant and an impressively versatile Cameron Folmar.
The plays were written by Williams over a lengthy span and are presented chronologically, ending with a searing look at depression in “I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow,” a play first performed on PBS in 1970 and later staged by Kahn. Three of the four unproduced scripts were selected from a cache of 15 plays sent to Kahn by two researchers, Nick Moschovakis and David Roessel, who “discovered” them in collections of papers by Williams at the U. of Texas at Austin and at UCLA.
All five plays share a common theme: the fragile individual buffeted, and in some cases tormented, by others. Development of the playwright’s language is vividly charted by the collection, along with his ability to crisply define complex characters in a few short scenes.
A highlight of the collection is “And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens,” the dramatist’s only openly gay-themed play. Written during his tenure living in the New Orleans French Quarter, it focuses on an emotionally spent homosexual who is desperate to launch a clearly destructive relationship with a user and batterer.
Folmar’s Candy is a lonely French Quarter resident rebounding from a long-term romance. He brings home to his excessively decorated apartment the brawny and singularly obtuse Karl (Myk Watford), changes into an evening gown and proceeds to lay out an unworkable game plan for their life together. The idea’s lunacy is obvious to all, especially the two queens living upstairs, and it isn’t long before Karl shows his true colors. Under Kahn’s careful direction, the piece plays as delightful comedy before turning ugly.
Folmar’s astute portrayal of Candy, with her subtle hints of Blanche DuBois, is even more compelling considering he has just stepped from a role as a timid and henpecked son opposite van Ark in “Escape,” a play about another dysfunctional relationship. Van Ark clearly recalls “The Glass Menagerie’s” Amanda as the nervous, whining, chiding and self-obsessed female who drives her suffering son to desperate measures during a lakeside holiday. She makes the most of a classic Williams role.
The subject of sexual awakening is the point of the evening’s first offering, “These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch.” It’s set in the lobby of a seedy 1940s movie parlor where an innocent young usher discovers the real entertainment is reserved for the balcony. Written early in the playwright’s career, it is most illuminating as a benchmark for the plays to follow.
In the final play, “I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow,” Williams administers a powerful dose of cold water in a blunt examination of two individuals immobilized by inner demons. Chalfant and Thomas J. Ryan offer a disquieting look at people coping with emotional trauma. Chalfant is an intriguing mixture of strength amid paralysis. “Repetition doesn’t make security. It can’t be trusted,” she warns her friend, who is so distraught he can’t finish his sentences. But then she can’t climb the stairs to bed.
Kahn has cleverly woven the plays together with personal asides from Williams’ memoirs. Clad in a white suit, actor Jeremy Lawrence impersonates the author in middle age as he introduces each piece, reciting stage directions and reflections. Introducing the brief political play “The Municipal Abattoir,” written during World War II about a totalitarian state, the “author” sets the scene by musing about the compatibility between art and revolution.
Andrew Jackness has provided just the right amount of scenery, with excesses appropriately reserved for “Queens.” Howell Binkley’s varied lighting answers a broad range of assignments.