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A Distant Country Called Youth

by Dolores W. Gregory

He used to call himself "Tom." Formally, it was "Thomas Lanier." Later, occasionally, he used "T.W." In college, he picked up the nickname "Tennessee" because his fraternity brothers could not remember which southern state he called home. Much later---years later---as a successful Broadway playwright, in letters to his intimates, Tennessee Williams signed himself off, affectionately, as "Tenn."

The 15-year-old boy whose precociously descriptive accounts of his travels amused his beloved sister eventually became a theatrical powerhouse whose work is now the focus of a summer-long festival at The Kennedy Center. A Distant Country Called Youth is an all-too-brief installment in that festival. Running for only four perfomances, it is, so far, the stand-out of the festival.

In this 90-minute one-man show actor Richard Thomas lovingly and powerfully illuminates a series of letters by Williams to family, friends, lovers, agents, producers, and literary luminaries. Written over 20 years, the letters follow Williams from his youth in Clayton, Mo., to his first triumph on Broadway. The Glass Menagerie, the masterpiece that made his reputation, is based on his own family. Its famously introverted heroine, Laura, was inspired by Williams' sister Rose, whose mental deterioration is chronicled in heartbreaking detail in her brother's letters.

"She wants me to send her ice cream," Thomas reads, his voice catching in grief as he realizes that his beautiful sister would spend the rest of her life in an institution, too far out of touch with reality ever to return home.

Yet, despite the undercurrent of vulnerability and grief that courses through Williams' life and work, his letters also reveal a remarkably humorous spirit. As a youth, he boldly accosts the editors of Story magazine with a plea to "show a stranger a little kindness." He depicts his early wanderings in California and Mexico---and a series of homosexual trysts engaged in there---with bawdy relish. His initial efforts as a playwright---a career peppered by flops----disappoints but does not defeat him. Like many playwrights he is forced to turn to Hollywood for bread and butter---and his first assignment is to transform a dreadful B movie script written for Lana Turner into a work worthy of public attention. "I feel," he writes, "like an obstetrician required to deliver a Mastodon from a beaver."

Director Steve Lawson originally adapted the play for a one-night performance at Manhattan Theater Club, but it has since moved on to longer runs at Hartford Stage and the Williamstown Theater Festival. Given its budget-friendly aspect---performed by the actor reading the script at music stands---it's a wonder it hasn't been produced more often. A Distant Country is tailor-made for star power; different actors can---and have---moved the part with relatively scant rehearsal.

The hazard of such an arrangement, of course, is that if the lone actor lacks the chops to go with his box-office luminosity, you end up with a piece that fails to take wing dramatically. There is no such hazard with Thomas in the role, however. To use the words of an audience member at the first-night talk-back, his performance is "wonderfully transparent," allowing the brave and vulnerable heart of young Tennessee to beat ferociously on stage.

Thomas modestly credits the material. Written with the flourish and poetry we associate with his plays, Williams' letters reveal, as Thomas said after the performance, the writer's "act of self-creation"---a process in which "we all take part." Like many of us in our early years, Williams tried on personas like so many hats. Unlike most of us, though, he had a towering talent to match the outsized character that he eventually settled into---that of a slightly debauched but always elegant Southern gentleman who never put much distance between himself and a mint julep.

Williams' approach to his plays mirrors his approach to his own life---try it, and if you don't like it, let it go. What's the harm? While A Glass Menagerie---which originated as an unsuccessful one-act, The Gentleman Caller---was still running on Broadway, Williams wrote a gushing letter to his agent Audrey Wood. In it, he described a new play about a fading southern belle named Blanche, whose sister had married beneath her, and whose brutally sexy brother-in-law would prove to be her undoing---a man he planned to call "Ralph."
A Distant Country Called Youth
Directed and adapted by Steve Lawson from the The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 1: 1920-1945.
With Richard Thomas
Lighting Design: Martha Mountain
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Telephone (202)-467-4600 or (800) 444-1324
Opened June 11, 2004, closes June 13, 2004. Reviewed by Dolores W. Gregory based on a June 11 performance.
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