NEW ORLEANS — This year, the Tennessee Williams Festival didn’t depend on the kindness of strangers, but it certainly got a lot of help from its celebrity friends.
Patricia Clarkson, Rex Reed, Richard Thomas, Tab Hunter and Stephanie Zimbalist all showed up to add luster to the 20th edition of this celebration of the playwright who once called New Orleans “my spiritual home.”
Like everything else in this brave but battered city, the festival’s status was in jeopardy for a while after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in August. But author and festival president Patricia Brady vowed the well-attended event would continue.
The purse strings were a bit tighter than in recent years, and there were no fully mounted Williams plays.
Pre-Katrina plans had included a new staging of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but economic necessity warranted a total revamp of the event, with one-man shows and staged readings the order of the day, and several productions returning from last season.
The festival centerpiece was Thomas’ appearance as Williams in “Blanche and Beyond,” adapted and directed by Steve Lawson from the second volume of the playwright’s collected letters, spanning 1946-57.
The Thomas/Lawson duo previously appeared at the festival in 2002, with “A Distant Country Called Youth,” based on the first volume of Williams’ letters.
Jeremy Lawrence reprised his 2005 offering “Talking Tennessee,” a stream-of-consciousness monologue neatly woven from Williams’ own words culled from various interviews, articles, etc.
And Zimbalist joined a cast of local actors for a staged reading of a recently discovered early Williams play, “These Are the Stairs You’ve Got to Watch.”
New Orleans talent also was on display in “Ignatius on Stage,” a reading based on selected scenes from John Kennedy Toole’s epic New Orleans novel “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Perry Martin directed a company headed by popular regional radio host and performer John “Spud” McConnell.
Louisiana-born critic Reed has come to the festival eight times in the past, dispensing wit and charm as well as his knowledge of Williams and those who play him.
This year, he interviewed Hunter in front of a packed crowd about his appearance opposite Tallulah Bankhead in the legendary flop 1964 production of “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.”
The festival also celebrates the broader field of literary activities in New Orleans. This year, it included numerous panels inspired by life in the city post-Katrina and how writers of all descriptions had responded to it.
These bore titles like “Stronger Than a Glass Menagerie,” “In the Wake of Destruction” and “Surviving With Grace.”
And what could have been a routine political speech suddenly acquired panache.
City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson attended April 1 to read a civic proclamation honoring the festival for surviving and prospering for two decades, but before she could begin, her Oscar-nominated daughter, Patricia, unexpectedly sprang through the crowd to offer some words of support.
“When it comes to acting Tennessee Williams,” the thesp said, “being born in New Orleans gave me a head start on the rest of the world, because I grew up knowing how his wonderful words should be spoken.”
The specter of Katrina stayed in the background until the festival’s finale, the Stanley and Stella shouting contest, in which two dozen contestants stand under a balcony in Jackson Square and bellow “Stellllaaaa!” in imitation of Brando’s performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Females are allowed to shout “Staaaaaaanley!”)
However, this year’s winner, Rick Legoretta from New Orleans, scored his success instead by bellowing “FEMAAAA!,” the acronym for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, broadly attacked for its handling of the post-Katrina crisis.
The deafening response from the crowd indicated New Orleans had lost neither its sense of humor nor its capacity for defiance, two qualities Williams cherished.
The playwright’s spirit was definitely in evidence this year. After all, he was the man who once wrote, “High station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.”
Few cities have survived more appalling experiences than New Orleans did this past year, or done so with more grace. Thomas Lanier Williams would have been proud.