All praise to Annalee Jefferies, whose gentle strength as homeless Nantucket spinster Hannah Jelkes is the still, small voice of humanity at the heart of Tennessee Williams’ 1961 sex-and-religion melodrama “The Night of the Iguana” and the saving grace of Michael Wilson’s otherwise overwrought, ear-splitting revival. By most reports the late, great Margaret Leighton pretty much walked off with the original Broadway production, and Jefferies does the same here in a play that, more than 40 years later, can be clearly seen as the herald of the decline and fall of Williams. It’s just not very good.
Williams did not, of course, write realistic plays. His flair was more for the poetic and operatic. Even so, it’s difficult to truly believe in the character of Hannah, a middle-age woman with little visible means of support who roams the world as the companion to her 97-years-young grandfather Nonno, “the world’s oldest living and practicing poet” (another hard-to-take character). Nevertheless, Jefferies makes us believe in a role in which she’s actually more at home than she was as Blanche in Wilson’s Hartford Stage revival of “Streetcar” in 1998. Amid the prevailing cacophony of this “Iguana,” her unruffled calm is welcome indeed.
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For this production, Wilson chose to reunite the three leads from his “Streetcar.” But whereas Jefferies is ideally cast, James Colby (Stanley in “Streetcar”) and Alyssa Bresnahan (Stella) seem miscast as the Reverend Shannon and Maxine Faulk, respectively, in “Iguana.” Bresnahan is too young and too physically gorgeous for Maxine, who should be a bit over the hill and blowsy. Certainly Bresnahan’s tough Texan Maxine, who displays her “boobs” blatantly, wouldn’t settle for running a tacky Mexican hotel. To make matters worse, director Wilson apparently has encouraged Bresnahan, who has proved herself a good actress in the past, to scream her way through the role in a far too aggressive, in-your-face way.
Then there’s Colby, who never for a moment suggests a black Irishman who was once a man of the cloth and now is on the verge of cracking up. He comes across as a perfectly sane, albeit coarse and unkempt, lout with a penchant for young girls, his discussions about the way God is seen as “a senile delinquent” carrying no weight. And should the audience really roar with laughter when he tells of being ousted from his church because of fornication and heresy? On the other hand, when Jefferies’ Hannah recalls the two, yes two, “sexual” experiences she’s had in her life, she’s deeply touching.
Performed on Jeff Cowie’s vast CinemaScope and Technicolor set under Howell Binkley’s steamy lighting, Wilson’s production opens at full tilt with male nudity in a scene that suggests Maxine has been having a threesome with her two Mexican houseboys. It’s all shouting and screaming from then on, Hannah’s hushed entrance being all the more memorable and welcome for that.
The one big plus Wilson’s pushy staging gives his production, which includes a crashing thunderstorm with torrential rain at the end of act one, is energy and speed. There are no longueurs here because, thankfully, no one lingers over what are some of Williams’ more suspect purple passages. And within the limitations of the noisy overdone performances Wilson seems to have wanted from most of his cast, the actors are never less than competent, even the four playing the quartet of German vacationers who are mere cartoons.
But it is Jefferies who is the one and only genuinely affecting performer in Wilson’s production, in which subtlety is virtually nonexistent.