One month short of Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday, the Fountain presents conclusive evidence of life in the old boy to the end in his final opus “A House Not Meant to Stand.” As the rapacious McCorkles return to their dilapidated Pascagoula, Miss. manse for one last grab at – what else in a Williams play? – money and raw sex, narrative flaws are accentuated rather than papered over in Simon Levy’s visually splendid production. But Sandy Martin’s shattering central performance counters any preconception that Williams’ sweet bird of youth flew off with his talent in its talons.
The action doesn’t cut widely or broadly enough to support Williams’ desired metaphor of chez McCorkle as “a metaphor for society in our times.” He lazily overindulges in ineffectual direct address. Moments crying out for confrontation or a button land stillborn.
But thanks to Jeff McLaughlin’s infallible eye for moldy detail, the set instantly evokes a Southern past no one did more than Williams to implant in the national consciousness. Every board creak and wallpaper peel transports us to the DuBois family’s Belle Reve or Amanda Wingfield’s Blue Mountain, now reduced to hardest times.
The behavior reflects the squalor. To finance a hoped-for Congressional run, corpulent Cornelius (Alan Blumenfeld) greedily turns his Big Daddy eye to a wad of cash legend says his wife’s family hid here. But put-upon Bella (Martin) is too bereaved by yesterday’s funeral for her gay son, and too bewildered by straight son Charlie (Daniel Billet), his latest conquest (Virginia Newcomb) and a passel of nosy acquaintances, to focus.
Her mental state is perfectly complemented by a torrential downpour courtesy of Ken Booth’s lights and Peter Bayne’s recorded and live sound. (The rain drops are real.) Kudos, too, to Naila Aladdin-Sanders’ costumes, wittily wrapping each character in bulging trousers and high skirts we can believe each chose to show off assets.
Unfortunately, the male thesps contribute enough thrashing as the stakes rise to overwhelm the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, let alone the tiny Fountain. Cornelius’ relative absence in act two redeems one’s decision to return from intermission after an hour of Blumenfeld’s unvaried, humorless bellowing. Horny neighbor Robert Craighead chuckles unbearably at his own witticisms line by line, while Billet would be wise to consult the pantheon of Williams’ sexy louts to learn the value of underplaying.
In contrast, Newcomb creates an appealingly bubbly sexpot (until she, too, gets caught up in the shoutfest), and Lisa Richards is pure gold as a chatty neighbor whose bum plastic surgery traps her in a death mask.
But it’s quicksilver Martin, playful even in distress, who’s indelible here. At first Bella lurches about like Cornelius’ marionette, but once the strings are cut she emerges as a worthy epilogue to all Williams’ faded Southern belles bereft of hope at the end of the Camino Real. In their best tradition, the actress keeps her comical yet ever real.
As battered in reality (a truck nearly flattens her) as those heroines were metaphorically, Bella dissociates into that fugue state of memory and grief with which so many Williams plays wind up. Behind a scrim, Martin’s valedictory is like the author waving from the grave, Keith Skretch’s extraordinary video images offering the timeless master a more heartbreaking sendoff than a Delta jazz funeral.