“Small Craft Warnings” does little for Tennessee Williams’ legacy. Originally produced in 1972, this scattered drama marshals eight lonely people into a seaside bar, then leaves them adrift, with nothing to do but argue, drink and occasionally step into a spotlight for a monologue. Some of those speeches are beautiful, but they would be better served in an evening of excerpts, not buried in a full production of a minor work.
The monologues especially aren’t helped by this production. Just as in its production last year of “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” White Horse Theater Company shows no sensitivity to the rhythm and texture of Williams’ writing. Dignified madness becomes shrill hysteria, and subtle symbols become signal flares on the stage.
Most egregiously, near the beginning of act one, director Cyndy A. Marion lets her actors literally scream at each other for 10 minutes. After trashy beautician Leona (Linda S. Nelson) sees her hunky, dimwitted boyfriend Bill (Rod Sweitzer) getting groped under a bar table by a neurotic named Violet (Andrea Maulella), she goes on a rampage. As she bellows curses and threatens people with chairs, Violet runs shrieking into the bathroom. The men holler, too, and everyone performs with bug-eyed intensity.
It’s unfathomable what Marion wants this scene to communicate. By pushing thesps to mania and keeping them there, she makes the characters insufferable gorgons, which violates Williams’ obvious sympathy for their isolation.
Nelson is the worst offender, huffing and stamping and rolling her eyes. Even in Leona’s quieter moments, when she remembers her gay brother’s death, the thesp overenunciates every word. It’s a shoddy approximation of a woman using gruffness to hide her misery.
Things improve marginally by the end, when all the characters have stepped forward to reveal their inner thoughts and made a sad kind of peace with each other. At least the production’s tone fluctuates with the emotion of the plot.
Christopher Johnson appears as Quentin, an aging gay man who comes into the bar with a teenage boy (Tommy Heleringer) he’s picked up for the night. When he gets his turn to speak, Quentin reveals his trick actually returned an affectionate touch, which repulsed him. “I only go for straight trade,” he says, revealing that he’s so ashamed of his own sexuality that he can’t see it reflected in a lover.
From there, Williams pushes past self-loathing to existential boredom: Talking only to us, Quentin says he’s lost the ability to be surprised by anything. Johnson’s beautiful perf proves how much that hurts. Thesp barely moves during his monologue, and his stillness makes his sadness seem all-consuming. When he speaks, his tone is matter of fact, so the occasional ripple of emotion suggests just how much this lonely man has forced himself to bury. His anguish becomes an oasis of honesty in an overheated show.