A forgotten Tennessee Williams play most people, critics included, had never heard of, “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” drew mixed reviews during its three-week Off Broadway run in 1979, never securing the necessary funding for a Broadway transfer. We can thank Denver Center Theater Company director Laird Williamson, who worked with Williams at ACT in San Francisco in 1976, for resurrecting it and giving us a glimpse of the master’s craft at a time when his life was in decline and his talents were in question.
More so than in most of Williams’ works, the historical context for “Creve Coeur,” set in the mid-1930s, plays an important part. The role of women in American society was in flux, somewhere between the post-WWI right of suffrage and the WWII right to rivet, with the glass ceiling a distant, future obstruction.
Social relationships, of course, reflect these political and economic restrictions, and Williams makes telling choices in shaping the characters and situations of the four strikingly drawn women whose lives come together in a St. Louis apartment building that sits a trolley-car ride from Creve Coeur Park. Caught between the pangs of growing independence and the ever-present Hollywood- and jazz-fed notions of romance and sexuality, Williams’ characters struggle for a sense of identity and belonging.
At the center of what must be described, with pleasant surprise, as a comedy, is Dorothea (Caitlin O’Connell), a schoolteacher and “woman of a certain age.” Much like Amanda Wingfield from “The Glass Menagerie,” “Dottie” creates a Prince Charming out of a cad, filling her hours with a fantasy of silver-screen proportions. But that is where the two characters’ similarities end.
Starry-eyed and wrapped in a luxuriant Southern dialect to complement her tangerine lingerie, O’Connell makes a spell-binding protagonist. She moves easily between the near-farcical and tragicomic elements of the story, giving full range to Williams’ imaginative intrigues.
Dottie’s landlord, Bodey (Kathleen M. Brady), is a second-generation German-American whose robust diet and garish tastes dominate the apartment. She dreams Dottie will hook up with her equally ample and fashion-challenged twin brother, Buddy, who looms offstage, just a phone call away.
Seamlessly blending Bodey’s earthiness and surprising outbursts of psychological insight, Brady creates a presence as warm and colorful as her character’s decorating scheme. Her Bodey is fully capable of standing up to Dottie’s haughty schoolteacher friend Helena (Carol Halstead).
Halstead provides one of her most memorable characterizations, interjecting mocking laughter into icy putdowns of her counterparts, each barb delivered with a telling tic. Through Helena, Williams paints a contrasting response to single womanhood, linking upward mobility with loss of compassion.
As Miss Gluck, a ghostly manic-depressive visitor from upstairs, Robynn Rodriguez is a fascinating combination of half-crazed derelict, overflowing with Germanic slang ramblings, and prescient fool, willing to point fingers and throw water at her antagonist. Disheveled and soiled, yet sporting a devilish grin at the outcome, Rodriguez offers a compelling mirror into the playwright’s often desperate heart.
While Williams’ lyricism does not reach the same heights in this late, albeit lighter, work as in his famous tragedies, his talent for rich symbolism and telling plot devices has lost little of its earlier strength, and his dialogue remains witty and sharp.
Although we are moved by Dottie’s affirming response to her climactic setback, it is a bittersweet redemption, fulfilling a need that appears to be more of society’s making than one that ultimately will satisfy her own potential.
Nevertheless, Williams abandons his penchant for tragedy, and we are uplifted, after so much heartbreak (creve coeur), to end up here, on a lovely Sunday afternoon. Despite appearances at his end, Williams seems to have found some measure of affirmation.
Director Williamson has made the most of his talented cast. The set, designed by the late Andrew Yelusich and successor Lisa Orzolek, is a playful mix of camp and kitsch, evoking a zeitgeist dominated by the desire to escape from the nagging Depression and the chilling drums of war.