If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from the ravages of existence. It’s quietly heartbreaking, a study in the melancholy of life’s misfits, and director James MacDonald’s sensitive West End staging, starring Clive Owen and Anna Gunn, is full of feeling. But Williams’ play suffers alongside its characters. Like them, it becomes completely becalmed. People can do that; plays can’t.
Still, it’s impossible not to sympathize with the dysfunctional drifters drawn to this ramshackle retreat near “the back door of America.” Gunn lends its owner, Maxine Faulk, a piratical swagger as she hacks coconuts open to fill them with rum, but for all she’s found happiness here, high spirits can’t hide her internal struggles as she grieves for her husband and struggles for cash. She heaves up a friendly smile every time the holidaying German clan stroll through in their swimsuits, singing Nazi folk songs and breaking the peace.
When Owen’s rakish tour guide T. Laurence Shannon rocks up in a rumpled, sweat-stained white suit with a busload of Southern Baptists in tow, she lights right up. But this disgraced priest is in a dark, dark place himself. He is effectively on the run from himself, haunted by a condition he calls “The Spook.” Shannon’s not equipped for the real world: too disjointed to hold down his job, too distracted to take it easy. Owen gives him a punchdrunk boxer’s gait, zigzagging about after one too many of life’s blows. The latest is a looming charge of statutory rape — not his first, either; the last got him defrocked.
Then comes the arrival of a Nantucket spinster and her 97-year-old grandfather: an artist and a poet, so strapped for cash they survive by bartering their art. Lia William’s Hannah, her eyes always searching, her voice light as air, seems a curious eccentric at first. But the more you get to know her, like Shannon, you come to understand her pain. Orphaned as a child, raised by her grandfather (Julian Glover), she can’t bear the world’s cruelties, either out of softness or kindness, or both.
Originally a short story written soon after World War II, “The Night of the Iguana” sits out of sorts onstage. Arguably, that works to its advantage. Like its restive leads, it never quite finds its footing. Their listlessness is catching and, as drama, it drifts. It lacks a plot, per se — but then, doesn’t life?
The question is which of these women — earthy Maxine or ethereal Hannah — can offer Shannon the respite he needs. Which can save him from himself? Maxine offers hearty satisfactions: beer, laughter and sex. Hannah offers spiritual ones: ideas, calm and care. Watching her brewing up a poppyseed tea, soothing the sort of manic episode she knows all too well, is a minor-key delight, as delicate as two fireflies finding each other’s light.
That’s precious — and Rae Smith’s design makes this off-piste oasis all the more precarious. The ring of rickety shacks, festooned with fairy lights and Tibetan prayer flags, seems to be perched on the sheerest of cliff faces, like some migrating seabird’s improbable nest. Above it, a boulder threatens to come crashing down. Below, a ravine stretches into an echo. If Maxine’s retreat offers any respite, it feels all too fragile, always under threat. Her Coke-branded cooler stands as proof of the pervasiveness of consumerism and the real world; even here, earning money’s a must.
That’s where Williams lays his ambiguity. Each of his protagonists has some kind of hustle — Shannon skimming off savings he makes cutting corners, Hannah peddling her grandfather’s opaque, overlong poems — yet the world makes them so. They have no alternative. Their tragedy, really, is that they’re not built for it. That’s exactly what they’re out to escape, and it leads them into this temporary, threadbare existence.
And Macdonald makes clear that merely existing is hard enough. The heat’s heavy, the air thick with mosquitoes and none of these people can find lasting peace. Although this place can seem like paradise with cool light streaming through the canopy, when lighting director Neil Austin introduces a burning sunset glow, it can look an awful lot like hell. Rain runs off the corrugated iron roof like prison bars and the Nazi clans march brazenly through. It is quietly heartbreaking to watch: a world that squeezes the life out of lost souls.