When F. Scott Fitzgerald made his oft-quoted comment about there being “no second acts in American lives,” he couldn’t have anticipated the career of Tennessee Williams.
The playwright’s long, slow climb to the success of “The Glass Menagerie” when he was 34 provided a nice act-one curtain. Then followed more than a decade of fevered productivity and worldwide fame that brought act two to a climactic finish, before a sad act three, as Williams began a long, slow slide into substance abuse and relative inactivity, until he died at age 71.
Williams’ life can be charted admirably through his letters, since he was an eager and skilled correspondent. The first volume, running from his adolescence through the opening of “Menagerie,” was successfully adapted into a one-man show by Steve Lawson in 2001 under the title “A Distant Country Called Youth” and has since successfully toured the world.
Lawson has now moved on to the second volume of Williams’ letters, from 1946-57, for “Blanche and Beyond.” It received a one-night workshop presentation at the Manhattan Theater Club in March 2005 and had its first official performance as the opening gala of the 20th Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans, with Richard Thomas portraying the playwright.
Although it lacks the straight narrative throughline of the first piece, “Blanche” proves even more rewarding on several levels. There’s a lot more starry showbiz names thrown around (Brando, Tandy, Selznick, Olivier, Leigh, Kazan, Stapleton), and it’s fascinating to see how many scripts Williams often had in his head at the same time, moving one from the back burner to the front and turning up the heat at the right moment.
It’s also a more complex psychological portrait than the first, as the fissures in Williams’ psyche, which eventually would split him wide open, start to show signs of strain. There’s one description of a panic attack so severe that a friend has to rush him a brandy from a bar down the street; it offers a chilling view of the booze-sodden shell Williams would become in later years.
Lawson also directs, with a light but firm hand. Most of the material moves from New York to Rome to New Orleans and back again, so he sets up three music stands, each flanked by a table holding an appropriate drink: scotch in Manhattan, martinis in Louisiana, red wine in Italy.
But the major thing that makes the material work so well is Thomas’ performance. Dressed in an off-white, double-breasted suit and offering only the flavor of a Southern accent, the actor gives us an impressionist painting of Williams rather than a realistic portrait.
Thomas has the charm Williams supposedly possessed in abundance, which keeps the more self-obsessed passages from being cloying. He also has a fine grasp of how to make the key passage in a letter stand out clearly without seeming to stress it unduly.
Lawson and Thomas also have found the way to give some of Williams’ more political observations an edge. A comment the writer made on Sen. Joe McCarthy (“There doesn’t even seem to be a normal intelligence at work in the affairs of the nation. Aren’t you frightened by it?”) gets just the sufficient amount of spin from Thomas to have it resonate as a comment on the current White House.
The New Orleans audience, lamenting sluggish action by the federal government after Hurricane Katrina, responded with overwhelming enthusiasm to the line.
The show appears for a one-night engagement April 17 at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage. Remaining perfs will be on hold for a while as Thomas goes on the road with the Roundabout touring company of “Twelve Angry Men,” but it’s expected to be seen next at the Galway Arts Festival in summer 2007.
Especially with someone like Thomas in the role, “Blanche and Beyond” is a literate and entertaining piece of theater that should have a long life.