With a Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” numerous major productions at the regionals and an all-out celebration at the Kennedy Center, Tennessee Williams is getting the attention and respect that eluded him in the last decades of his life. Hartford Stage, which launched its multiyear marathon of the playwright’s canon in 1998, is ambitiously showcasing Williams’ range with a two-evening program of eight one-act plays, including three world premieres. The plays, spanning his career from 1937 to 1983 and directed by Hartford a.d. Michael Wilson, embrace both the sublime and the ridiculous. High-profile names such as Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Plummer add to the event’s cachet and significance.
Wilson sets the plays inside the frame of the International Shoe Co. warehouse where Williams worked in the mid-’30s, returning home late at night to work as a fledgling playwright. As each of the programs begin, a silent stand-in for Williams appears and becomes fixated on a pair of shoes. Audiences benefit from the curatorial context of the project. Placed side by side, the works seem almost to speak to each other, as character types are revisited and revised, themes are re-explored and even Williams’ language echoes and evolves.
Williams’ later style may prove most daunting to audiences: The journey gets more wild, absurd and cartoony with each of the program’s longer end pieces: “Cats With Jeweled Claws” and “The Gnadiges Fraulein,” both written at a time when Williams was taking his craft and themes to theatrical extremes, often to critical catcalls.
But the plays span a gamut of styles, varying widely from the stereotype of “sex, sin and the South” associated with his masterworks. “The Palooka,” set in a locker room before a boxing match, is a slight, early sketch etched in social realism — Odets coupled with an O. Henry ending. But the voice is Williams, as an aged fighter speaks of the deluded dreams he and the playwright’s other “fugitive kind” would eventually share.
“Jeweled Claws” has Williams in his theater-of-the-absurd mode, first explored at length in “Camino Real.” With music by Fitz Patton and choreography by Peter Pucci, the piece turns into a demented, bawdy musical, with a libretto that’s half in Cloud Cuckooland and half in urban hell. “The One Exception,” the last play he wrote before his death, is a find, concerned with a situation similar to that in the classic “Portrait of a Madonna,” written 42 years earlier. Here Williams explores the world of madness with a cooler but no less compassionate eye and ear.
The shows offer juicy repertory roles for the programs’ quintet of actresses. Ashley plays a sad-eyed French Quarter tenant with both force and fragility in “The Lady of the Larkspur Lotion.” In “Fraulein,” she taps her comic extravagance as the landlady of a big dormitory for loons and losers.
Plummer gives two breathtaking performances: In “The One Exception,” she exudes terror and pain; in “Fraulein,” she’s an absurdist clown, a kind of existential Olive Oyl. (The role won Zoe Caldwell a Tony when the play was done in the ’60s, with another play, under the title “Slapstick Tragedy.”)
Denny Dillon’s comic chops get a workout as the put-upon waitress in “Jeweled Claws,” and she offers an hysterical-yet-merciful turn in “Fraulein” as a never-say-die artist reduced to singing for her supper.
Jennifer Harmon’s Southern aristocrat is chilling, desperate and repressed in “Something Unspoken.” She then lets loose in song, dance and beyond as a crazed shopper in “Jeweled Claws.”
But it is Annalee Jefferies’ transformations, the most remarkable and deep, that stay with you. In “Portrait of a Madonna,” she plays an unraveling woman on the edge of eviction and asylum, a precursor to Blanche in “Streetcar.” (Jefferies played that role in the production that launched the Hartford marathon.) The actress does a remarkable turnaround as a calculating ’80s artiste survivor in “Exception,” and she offers a surreal musical turn in “Jeweled Claws.” Finally, she is heartbreaking as the secretary in “Something Unspoken.”
Although it’s primarily ladies’ night, Helmar Augustus Cooper and Curtis Billings are effective in an odd little play, “The Chalky White Substance,” set in a post-apocalyptic world. Kevin Geer is an aching Palooka and Remo Airaldi shows proper respect as the landlord in “Madonna.”
If you include Michael Kahn’s “Five By Tenn” (including four world premieres) scheduled as part of the D.C. celebration next spring, Williams fans are getting a feast this year, with 13 rarely produced works and seven premieres. They may not all live up to the high expectations that Williams’ stature invites, but time has not been as unkind to some of these works as was once thought.