It’s time to re-evaluate “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.” When the play debuted on Broadway in 1976 after being tweaked for 25 years, it bore a double burden: It was written by Tennessee Williams, by then labeled a has-been, and was a revision of “Summer and Smoke,” an early work that cast a sizable shadow. The production ran less than a month, and the script became a career footnote alongside lesser lights like “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.” Now, in a haunting, vibrant revival, Actors Company Theater waves the play like a flag, demanding it be acknowledged as an exquisite work.
Williams once wrote, “When your candle burns low, you’ve got to believe that the last light shows you something besides the progress of darkness.” That bruised resilience defines Alma Winemiller (Mary Bacon), a neurasthenic outcast in the fictional Glorious Hill, Miss. Like so many Williams heroines, she’s too sensitive to thrive in the brutal world, yet she’s also too passionate to suppress her artistic talents, her scandalous opinions and her hunger for love.
Alma can’t move without being branded flighty and phony. Her pastor father (Larry Keith) warns her that everyone mocks her behavior, while her mentally disturbed mother (Nora Chester) wanders around the house muttering to herself, seemingly a vision of Alma’s future.
In a well-tuned perf, Bacon shows exactly why Alma alienates people. Her voice and hands flutter. She acts too interested in small talk with her neighbor, the young Dr. John Buchanan (Todd Gearhart). Even when she hosts a meeting of her cultural club — a group of misfits who wear hideous frocks and write self-important essays — she’s overbearing. She makes Alma exhausting, just as she should be.
Slowly, though, Williams and Bacon reveal a woman beneath the mannerisms. First, the scribe evokes sympathy, suggesting the entire cosmos is designed to warp a gentle soul. In one devastating exchange, John, who is Alma’s unrequited love, describes Einstein’s theory that space is curved, not endless. In response, Alma declares the entire universe a prison.
But here’s where the candle shows more than darkness: Alma also fights to be heard. She won’t die in that prison without scratching her name on the wall.
Most dramatically, she has an abortive love affair with John. Director Jenn Thompson intensifies the passion by staging it with restraint. Gearhart, for instance, lets his chivalrous demeanor crack with lust, but his urges are tempered with doubt.
Bacon exults as she finally expresses every wild feeling Alma has inside, but she seems to surprise even herself by remaining reasonably composed. After revealing her love, she straightens her posture and deepens her voice.
By the final scene, as Alma wanders Glorious Hill, Williams gives her potent insights on the human struggle with religion, society and sexuality, and with an effortless leap, the play makes a piercing symbolic statement.
Set designer Bill Clarke assists the transformation with realistic rooms and projections whose meaning evolves. A stone angel at a park, for example, has a totally different resonance when Alma is firmly resolved than when she’s a basket case.
Supporting thesps bring valuable relief with comic turns. As Mrs. Buchanan, Darrie Lawrence plays a smothering mother, washing John’s feet while she tells him what to do. The character embodies the oppressiveness of respectability, but Lawrence also gives her the energy of a trained socialite. Similarly, Alma’s friends nail the comic rhythms of the cultural club.
Those light moments throw Alma’s suffering into greater relief, making the play even more satisfying.