What if Blanche Du Bois came to her senses, bypassed the magic and lights and settled for mere reality? Tennessee Williams envisions the other side of the heartbreak coin as comic — or at least bittersweet — in this rarely produced late work.
But reality is often less satisfying than the poetry of dreamers, even when the story is largely played for laughs.
In this 1978 work, Williams returns to the setting of his first major work, a tenement apartment on the wrong side of St. Louis of the mid-1930s. The garishly decorated flat (nicely rendered with tacky taste by Jeff Cowie) is shared by Bodey (Carlin Glynn) a practical, middle-aged German-American, and the “marginally youthful” Dorothea (Annalee Jefferies), a high school civics teacher “with a Southern belle complex.”
Dorothea (aka Dotty) is desperate to avoid the spinster fate of Bodey and another single friend, haughty Helena (Joan Van Ark), a fellow teacher who wants Dotty to move with her to a more upscale flat.
But Dotty’s attentions — and dreams — are elsewhere. She is anxiously awaiting a call from the high school principal to whom she surrendered herself.
However, unbeknownst to her — but not to Bodey, Helena or any audience member familiar with the tragic trajectory of Williams’ heroines — that day’s newspaper announces his engagement to another.
Play’s action centers on the battle for Dotty between Bodey and Helena. The good-hearted Bodey wants her roommate to settle in “for the long run” and raise a family with Bodey’s overweight, cigar-chomping twin brother. She implores Dotty to join them at a picnic at an amusement park later that day.
Helena, on the other hand, wants Dotty to join a man-free life in the company of cultured ladies.
Popping into the conflict is Miss Gluck (Jayne Taini), a German-speaking neighbor distraught over the recent death of her mother.
Though they’re played for color and comedy, these are women with a lot at stake who resolve in their own ways to survive.
In Jefferies’ multilayered perf, the physically vulnerable Dotty wills herself to be fit, strong and hopeful. Glynn’s clear-headed and protective Bodey may not have a lot going for her, but she knows who she is — and who others are as well.
As the viperish Helena, Van Ark displays a character of ice and steel, but also allows the cracks to show in her careful hauteur, revealing a frightening vulnerability. Only the pathetic Miss Gluck remains a sad figure of loneliness, a reminder that some do indeed depend on the kindness of friends.
There’s something unformed and unfocused in both script and production; there’s a lack of elegance in the design that is not disguised well enough by the execution. The piece never quite finds its rhythm, heart or stylistic center.
Williams, cast and helmer Michael Wilson awkwardly shift moods, character traits and theatrical styles: Dotty delivers a plaintive soliloquy, then there’s an abrupt bit of slapstick, then an expanse of narrative and character description, then a poetic flourish quelled by some sitcom banter.
There are moments of Williams’ lovely use of language and sense of wicked fun, but it’s not always fulfilling. Most tellingly, the sparring between the snobbish Helena and working-class Bodey lacks snap and bite.
Play closes with Dotty’s understanding and acceptance of her fate. Although Wilson and Jefferies put the best light on it (thanks in part to Rui Rita’s elegant illumination), there’s something ultimately lacking in this existential end as Dotty realizes life is no picnic. Giving up romance for reality may be a more mature step for the character and the playwright, but one can’t help but miss the magic.