Tennessee Williams is in the air, it seems. First the Kennedy Center’s announcement of a festival of three of the playwright’s major works this summer, and now Dublin’s Gate Theater has unearthed this late play, little-known even in America and certainly obscure overseas (this is its Irish premiere). A 1974 rewriting of the better-known and more expansively written (many argue over-written) “Summer and Smoke,” the play is notable for the potential star turn offered by its central female role, the flighty rector’s daughter Alma Winemiller.
The Gate chose it as a vehicle for the amazing Lia Williams, whose seductive performance as Ruth in the Gate’s production of Pinter’s “The Homecoming” still remains fresh in Irish theatrical memory. She’s just as good here, in a role that allows her to display an entirely different set of emotions and behaviors.
Alma is a vintage Williams dreamer-misfit, a poetic spirit crushed by societal convention and an inability to act on her desires. (The playwright said that, of all his characters, she was the one with which he most identified). She emotes, she swoons, she dreams, she hyperventilates, she pines, she pops pills: Williams makes it all convincing — and even makes you care about the woman.
The play takes place in the ironically named Glorious Hill, Miss., which in Dominic Cooke’s production is envisioned as so torpid and airless it renders its inhabitants virtual sleepwalkers: Set changes are performed by the costumed actors moving almost in slo-mo. Christopher Oram’s costumes are lovely: lots of crumpled white linen and, for the wealthy and pretentious Mrs. Buchanan (Barbara Brennan), some hilarious confections.
All of the technical elements do the job ably enough, as does, by and large, the supporting cast. But it all fades into the background in the face of Williams’ Alma, who is onstage almost constantly. She is the town’s outstanding oddball, a passionate singer who doesn’t miss an opportunity at a town event or family gathering.
But given that she is a spinster pushing 30, drawing such attention to herself is becoming a bit unseemly, as her father (John Kavanagh) cruelly reminds her in an encounter early in the first act, setting up the expectation that what we’re about to witness is society’s slow stifling of a free artistic spirit. Eventually, that is where we end up, but the route the play takes to get there is truly surprising, and provides a fascinating insight into the imaginative life of the aging playwright.
Alma is in love with John Buchanan, the town doctor’s son training to be a doctor himself. A slightly underdrawn character (he barely speaks in the first act), John lives life peering into microscopes. He’s under the thumb of his domineering mother (Brennan), who is steering him toward an advantageous marriage, a category that excludes Alma. And yet John is drawn to Alma’s imagination and expressiveness.
But what John is ultimately looking for, and why he resists Alma, is never clarified. Reflection on Williams’ oeuvre and life story suggests one hypothesis — maybe John’s gay? — that the production in no way entertains. The miscast Risteard Cooper certainly doesn’t supply motivation for John’s behavior; a fine actor well suited to play suave and worldly roles, he suggests none of the uncertain, idealistic vulnerability that characterizes John.
Nonetheless, the playing out of Alma and John’s relationship cannot fail to be gripping, even if the play’s final scene, when we discover Alma has turned to prostitution, feels tacked-on. And yet it is the coup de grace of Williams’ great performance that she finds a way to make the scene work. Throughout the play we have been confronted with evidence, in the form of her truly bonkers mother (the excellent Susan Fitzgerald), that madness is only around the corner for Alma, and playing her as crazy in this last scene would at least provide us some solace. But there is a terrible, composed practicality to Alma’s seduction of a traveling salesman: Her dreams have failed her; she is doing the only thing she can to support herself, and she’s painfully alert through every moment of it.
One hopes Garry Hynes, the Irish director of the upcoming Kennedy Center “Streetcar Named Desire,” will stop by the Gate soon with her casting hat on. Williams could play either Stella or Blanche — and there’s really not a higher compliment you can pay any actress.