Reviewed by George Basler
Based on a production that opened this past weekend (June 15-17) at Binghamton’s KNOW Theatre, Tennessee Williams wasn’t reluctant to cannibalize ideas.
But that’s OK, because Williams was cannibalizing himself. The three one-act plays, which will be performed through July 1, are early versions of works that Williams would later expand into full-length plays.
As such, the production — Tortured, Tender and Triumphant: An Evening with Tennessee Williams — gives us the opportunity to see how two of these plays evolved into two of Williams’ greatest works, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.
The third play, meanwhile, is a key source for Baby Doll, a movie that would attract moral outrage from some quarters when it was released in the 1950s.
KNOW Theatre does a competent job in staging all three plays. The acting is solid, and the direction is professional. Watching these early efforts provides a glimpse into Williams’ creative process.
The first play, The Pretty Trap, is basically an early version of the dinner scene that is the emotional centerpiece of The Glass Menagerie’s second act. The characters are Laura Wingfield, an emotionally fragile young woman; her domineering mother, Amanda Wingfield; her restless brother, Tom, and Jim Delaney, a co-worker Tom brings home for dinner.
The later, revised version that Williams would use in The Glass Menagerie certainly has more depth and complexity, but The Pretty Trap can stand on its own as a lovely effort. It features an ending that is far more hopeful then the one in The Glass Menagerie as Williams chooses romance over realism. You almost wish he hadn’t changed it.
Steph Seiden does a fine job in playing Laura’s emotional fragility, as well as her simmering anger toward her mother. Laurie Brearley gives an effective performance as the concerned, but self-deluded, Amanda. Eric Young and Eric Fernandez are solid as the brother and dinner guest, respectively. Joshua Sedelmeyer shows a fine balance in his direction.
The second play, Interior: Panic, is capably directed by Mike Arcesi, but it’s the most problematic play of the evening.
Some of the elements of A Streetcar Named Desire are present, but they haven’t quite gelled yet. One problem is that Williams tries to fit two many plot points into two short a time frame. The Blanche DuBois character (called Blanche Shannon in this play) is one-dimensional. The Stanley Kowalksi character (called Jack Kiefaber in this play) is totally undeveloped.
As the Blanche character, Caitlin McNichol has many fine moments playing an extremely challenging role. The one flaw is a tendency to go over the top at times in conveying the character’s mental instability. Sydney Lynn Stachyra gives a good, low-key performance as Blanche’s sister. Eric Young (who played Tom in The Pretty Trap) has the unenviable job of playing the underwritten Stanley character.
Still, despite its flaws, the play provides a glimpse of the greatness to come. Moreover, it has an ending that is different from Streetcar and is fascinating for this reason. It leaves open the question about whether Blanche can find some solace. McNichol plays this moment, and a monologue leading up to it, beautifully.
The final play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, is a bluntly dark tale that provides ample evidence as to why Baby Doll, its later incarnation, was so controversial. It’s Williams at his most disturbing.
The story begins when Jake (Sean Walsh), a wife-abusing lout, burns down his neighbor’s cotton gin. The neighbor, an outsider named Silva (Nick Ponterio), takes his revenge by slowly enticing Jake’s wife, Flora (Jessica Nogaret), into a sexual encounter. The twist is that Flora is both disturbed and attracted by Silva’s enticement. In the end, she seems almost to welcome it as revenge against her husband and the unlocking of her sensual nature.
The premise, though thoroughly ugly and morally reprehensible, makes the play compelling. Williams’ writing and Tim Gleason’s taut direction ratchet up the tension throughout.
Nogaret gives a richly nuanced performance as Flora who is alternately terrified and turned on. Is she a victim, or a willing participant? The actor skillfully leaves you wondering as she caresses her body at the end of the play while laughing.
Ponterio gives a chilling performance as Silva. He reminded me of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, evilly enticing at the start and violent at the end.
Walsh is effective as Jake. The character, as written by Williams, is a weak one, nothing much more than a stereotypical redneck who has come up short in the gene pool. But Walsh makes the most of it.
In a Press & Sun-Bulletin interview, Gleason, who is KNOW’s artistic director, said he hopes the three plays offer more evidence of Williams’ genius. The audience is offered a glimpse into how Williams grappled with his craft.
IF YOU GO: Tortured, Tender and Triumphant: An Evening with Tennessee Williams will be presented weekends through July 1 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15-$20; purchase online at knowtheatre.org or call 607-724-4341.
There is a pay-what-you-can performance at 8 p.m. today (Thursday, June 21).
KNOW Theatre gives an intriguing look at early Tennessee Williams
Reviewed by George Basler