"Well, we all have to paint our nudes." That was the condescending but astute appraisal given to 26-year-old Tennessee Williams in 1937 when the budding dramatist showed this romantically overwrought drama to E.C. Mabie, legendary prof of the playwriting program at the U. of Iowa. Chastened, Williams scrapped his half-baked work.
“Well, we all have to paint our nudes.” That was the condescending but astute appraisal given to 26-year-old Tennessee Williams in 1937 when the budding dramatist showed this romantically overwrought drama to E.C. Mabie, legendary prof of the playwriting program at the U. of Iowa. Chastened, Williams scrapped his half-baked work (which moldered in the research archives of the U. of Texas until 1996), but returned throughout his career to harvest its themes, characters, and Mississippi Delta locales.Fittingly, this sophomoric material has been given a sophomoric production. Betraying an ill-placed regard for the playwright’s youthful excesses, the overly indulgent company takes all too literally his morbidly romantic views of the way sensitive boys and rebellious girls who grow up in backwater Delta towns are doomed to suffer from the crushing insensitivity of their boorish elders. Williams is clear, even emphatic about his dual themes of sexual awakening and societal repression in this story about a sexually ripe Southern belle with the divine name of Heavenly Critchfield (Krista Lambden) who torments her suitors so unmercifully that one of them commits a killing act of cruelty. But the youthful scribe’s dramaturgy is ragged, and he hasn’t yet mastered the skill of translating impassioned thought into lyrical language. He gets no help here from director Coy Middlebrook’s production, which is slavishly faithful to the text in all the wrong ways. Instead of softening the play’s ponderous imagery of raging storms and swollen rivers, scenic designer Shawn Lewis drags out heavy set pieces that give both indoor and outdoor scenes a uniformly leaden quality. Making the same mistake, Theresa Squire’s close-fitting costumes suggest the moral rigidity of place and period, but disallow the characters any personal style or grace. Inflicting the unkindest cut of all, the thesps go ballistic, waving their arms and declaiming their lines in the stagey manner of professional charlatans who don’t believe a word they’re spouting. To be sure, the characters are not drawn with the subtle touch of the poet that Williams would later master. “You look almost human tonight” doesn’t quite hack it as the opening gambit of a seduction scene in which a dopey young poet named Arthur Shannon (John Gazzale) takes out his frustration by getting drunk and forcing himself on skittish librarian Hertha Neilson (Kristen Cerelli). But even in this clumsiest of scenes, Williams gives Arthur the loveliest of images. “You’ve got little hands,” he says to Hertha, “they’re little candle-wax hands.” For all their rough edges, these Southern grotesques serve as fascinating outlines for characters yet to come. Arthur is a ringer for Tom Wingate and all the other sensitive poets who stand to lose their talent if they don’t get out of town. The wistful Hertha will suffer further indignities as Alma in “Summer and Smoke” and blow out Laura’s candles in “The Glass Menagerie.” And Heavenly has the claws of Maggie the Cat. There is also a roughneck stud who will morph into Stanley Kowalski, an overbearing matriarch who is Amanda Wingate with training wheels and a wise old auntie (given some dignity in Carlin Glynn’s perf) whose voice of reason will be heard and disregarded in many plays to come. With such memorable characters waiting in the wings, these prototypes deserve more tenderness and compassion — and considerable more understanding — than they are given here.