If Tennessee Williams’ self-described “shameless romanticism” gives “The Night of the Iguana” its emotional power, then his desire to embrace a universal guilt gives the play its psychological hook — and both have been stroked to full impact in Antoni Cimolino’s sensitive Stratford Festival production.
Yet what ultimately places this show at the top of this year’s offerings (along with “The Cherry Orchard”) is a single performance, a characterization so deeply wrought and exquisitely delivered that all else pales beside it: Seana McKenna as Hannah Jelkes, the puritanical Nantucket spinster who, on one hot night in a rundown hotel in the Mexican jungle, soothes both her own soul and that of Shannon (Geordie Johnson), the tortured priest-turned-tour guide.
McKenna is an oasis of stillness — anchored by a beautifully modulated voice and a restrained grace — a cool droplet of sanity in the middle of Shannon’s swirling and desperate madness. Together, they are perfectly balanced in a play that juggles “essential human goodness” with a God reduced to the status of juvenile delinquent, a savior who favors lightning and thunder and vivisected dogs.
There is good work also from Johnson as the handsome and charismatic Shannon, a man whose weakness for girls in the first flush of womanhood gets him tossed out of his church. What is missing, perhaps, is the spirituality that urged Shannon into the priesthood in the first place, but that lack is made up by the driving energy fueling the performance.
There is another successful partnership: between Shannon and Maxine Faulk, the hotel owner played by Lally Cadeau. Cadeau brings the hard-edged determination of a Venus flytrap to a portrayal layered with a coarseness and pained voluptuousness. It trades off vulnerability for a razored heat that slams head-first into Shannon’s patent disinterest in her.
And finally, there is lovely, heart-rending, work from William Needles as Jelkes’ grandfather. The vet classical actor infuses his character with a crumbling dignity that makes his decline and eventual death one of the emotional fulcrums of the production.
Cimolino has carefully staged this Southern melodrama on the long thrust of the Tom Patterson Stage, with Guido Tondino’s wooden set of a cabin and hammock providing several playing areas without dominating the action. Judicious cuts keep the story focused.
There are some things that could usecleaning up: Patricia Collins does a lot of yelling and not much else in her role, and Cadeau’s Southern drawl is occasionally thick as melting tar in the hot Southern sun.
On the other hand, Cimolino succeeds in giving the Nazi characters a chilling edge — although the superficial presence of these Germans remains problematic within the text itself — and in general, the show captures both the humor and highly colored writing, without caving in to its stylized excesses.