For a playwright whose characters are so often pitched at extremes, there’s a unique pleasure that comes late in the second act of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” when two characteristically damaged, lonely Williams souls sit back and talk. The encounter is a great one, and it’s well-served in Anthony Page’s uneven but occasionally inspired revival of this 1961 play, which brings Woody Harrelson back to the London stage. First-timers to this thorny if most temperate of Williams plays may resist the show’s longueurs, but those alive to its singular humanity will find much to savor.
The scene in question is the prolonged tete-a-tete between two American visitors to a hilltop Mexican retreat circa 1940: the defrocked priest Shannon (Harrelson), who talks of being at odds with God when he’s not jumping into bed with underage girls; and Hannah Jelkes (Jenny Seagrove), an itinerant artist busy wheeling her 97-year-old writer grandfather, Nonno (John Franklyn-Robbins), from one hotel to another as he pens his first poem in 20 years.
Has Hannah, a New England spinster pushing 40, ever known love, asks the hard-living, libidinous Shannon? Hannah answers with twin recollections that never fail to still a house. And so they do once more.
The language shows Williams at his most deeply, richly empathic. “Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind, violent,” Hannah says of her self-described “love experience,” the character fully embodying the adage about still waters running deep. And against the odds, she finds the prospect of a soulmate right there in the form of the sweaty, self-doubting Shannon, who has cracked up before and surely will do so again.
While he hacks away at coconuts, the scene tears at the heart, abetted by two performers attuned to its momentous if mournful song.
Not all of “Iguana” is on this same exalted level, as has always been true of a play lacking the compact, gemlike majesty of “The Glass Menagerie” or the flaming psychic fury of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But the London theater, to its credit, tends to embrace the lesser works of major American playwrights, with “Iguana” leading the charge: Richard Eyre’s 1992 National Theater revival of this play remains a high-water mark in recent reappraisals of Williams, in which a clearly haunted dramatist was seen anew as an abiding humanist.
Page’s production, by contrast, exists in the commercial sphere and has an eye on the bottom line in a way not required by Eyre’s. And yet, it would be wrong to judge Harrelson’s presence merely as a stunt cashing in on the constant West End avidity for Hollywood and TV names. Three years ago, Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan appeared to diminishing returns (if good box office) in the all too aptly titled West End entry “On an Average Day.”
Shifting for the first time to the classic American canon, thesp shows a shrewd understanding of the quintessentially beleaguered Williams male, a man no less haunted by “the spook” than “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s” Brick is by “the click” in his head that brings with it peace.
The actor makes something bitterly funny out of Shannon’s adversarial relationship with the busload of traveling schoolteachers ready to have his head. And though the final preview saw him fumbling for the occasional line, the part marks a stretch Harrelson more than meets, his gift for improv helping him through some awkward stage business with a recalcitrant hammock.
Playing the more mysterious of the women who drift in and out of Shannon’s orbit, Seagrove might seem unfairly matched with Clare Higgins, inheriting Bette Davis’s original role as blowsy hotel proprietor Maxine. (As clothed — or not — by Anthony Ward, Higgins’ lady of the house looks forever in a state of semi-undress.) As might be expected, Higgins stakes a real claim for the newly widowed Maxine as a participant in the play’s landscape of grief, her scalding laugh suggesting itself as a defense against pain.
Seagrove, in turn, doesn’t possess the bottomless reserves of Eileen Atkins, who shone as Hannah in the Eyre production. But something about Seagrove’s natural reticence works to the advantage of the Buddha-like Hannah, who has lost her parents in a car crash and yet somehow carries on.
Rather like one of those Faulknerian talismans of endurance, Hannah uses patience as a scythe with which to forge her way through life. And when, at play’s finish, she makes a plea to God to stop, one feels the “end” embedded in the word endurance: death as both loss and release.