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A CurtainUp Review
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale

With Additional Notes by Elyse Sommer

Where did the fire come from? —  Alma
No one has ever been able to answer the question. —  John
eccentricities of a nightingale
Mary Bacon and Larry Keith
Tennessee Williams's extensive and aggressive re-write of Summer and Smoke is something of a revelation. It is also a rare treat for Williams's fans to see this lovely but under-loved play given a fine and respectful production by The Actors Company Theater. Under the carefully guided direction of Jenn Thompson, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale is a must-see for anyone interested in seeing the next phase of one of Williams's most rueful and lyrical plays. It evolved in a way that is both satisfying and also partially mystifying.

At the time Summer and Smoke was originally produced on Broadway in 1948 the major critics (with the exception of the NY Times) dismissed it as inferior to the still-running smash hit A Streetcar Named Desire. However, it survivedfor 3 months. Since Williams was not one to leave a play alone, Summer and Smoke re-emerged as Eccentricities of a Nightingale in 1951. It wasn't published until 1964 and didn't make it to Broadway until 1974 where it again failed to excite the critics or public and closed after 24 performances.

May I respectfully assume that many of you are familiar with the more densely plotted (and with many more characters) Summer and Smoke, particularly the lauded 1961 film version that nabbed an Academy Award nomination for star Geraldine Page. This is a wonderful opportunity to see Williams' bold revision of the play acted well and staged with an admirable sense of purpose.

The play is set in 1915 and 1916 in the southern town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. It continues to explore the flowering and then the withering of an intimate friendship between Alma Winemiller, the stay-at-home daughter of a pastor father and a loony mother and Dr. John Buchanan, Jr. John has just returned to his hometown as a budding bacteriologist after graduating from John Hopkins University. Alma has carried a torch for John since childhood. As a pitiably eccentric adult, her strangeness is undeniably appealing to the young doctor. It is worth noting that Alma (played with a striking flurry of carefully crafted mannerisms by Mary Bacon) is now presumably closer in spirit to the character Williams created in his short-stories Yellow Bird and Oriflamme.

The revisions are so extensive as to almost defy comparison to the original. Alma is less the repressed spinster than a full-fledged neurotic more conspicuously ridiculous in her behavior but also more pathetically and woefully misguided in her passion for the young Dr. John Buchanan, Jr. Unlike the dissipated alcoholic womanizer who thrashes about in Summer and Smoke, John has been reconsidered as a dutiful and devoted son with a clearly soulful connection to Alma. He is unquestionably a mama's boy and easily manipulated by Mrs. Buchanan, his condescendingly sweet mother, a major catalyst who doesn't even appear in Summer and Smoke.

Todd Gearhart is excellent as the comely John who gives a number of subtle indications that he may not be all that interested in women. As Mrs. Buchanan, Darrie Lawrence uses every minute she is on stage to indicate her intent and resolve to keep her son away from the emotionally needy Alma.

Some of the supporting characters do make a return and with similar impact. Alma's quartet of friends, cultural misfits all, still add a bit of comic relief. Scott Schafer, as Alma's dorky suitor; Cynthia Darlow, as the brittle and critical Mrs. Bassett, Francesca Di Mauro, as the European effete Rosemary, and James Prendergast, as the pompous poet Vernon, are each delightfully engaged for diversion. Gone are the melodramatic pot-boiling doings that revolved around the seductive Rosa and her vicious protective father. Muttering under her breath and going off the deep end in periodic outbursts, Nora Chester is standout as Alma's crazy as a bed bug mother. And Larry Keith maintains the dignity that befits his profession as the Rev. Winemiller.

The play begins and ends as it does in Summer and Smoke at the Angel fountain and Bill Clarke's simple scenic design consists of a large monochrome photo of the angel fountain. That photo looms behind the various scenes with their easily transported props and a pair of white traveling curtains. Costume designer David Toser's period attire, especially Alma's wardrobe, is period perfect.

The core of the play is more concentrated in its focus on Alma and John and their uneasy, ill-fated relationship. Alma's fate remains the same, as exemplified by the climactic scene with the traveling salesman (nicely portrayed by John Plumpis). One could quibble which version is better. But I'd like to take the position that with Eccentricities. . ., like the doppelganger that John observes in Alma, Williams reveals two of his most heartbreaking characters from two new perspectives. Where in all dramatic literature have we been privy to such exquisite insight?

Tony-award winning actress Elizabeth Ashley, a Williams leading lady, discusses her favorite Williams roles and recounts stories about her special friendship with the playwright. Following the 2 PM performance Saturday, May 10th. And Williams expert and acclaimed author Annette Saddik will discuss The Eccentricities of a Nightingale and shed light on Williams' struggles at the end of his career following the 2 PM performance Saturday May 17.

Editor's Note: Just as Simon was writing his review for this play, our Los Angeles critic, Laura Hitchcock attened a performances of three retrieved from the theatrical ashcan one-acts presented under the umbrella title of : The Lost Plays of Tennessee Williams. For more about Tennessee Williams and links to his works that we've reviewed (including Summer and Smoke), see Curtainup's Williams Backgrounder.

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
  By Tennessee Williams
  Directed by Jenn Thompson
 
Cast: Mary Bacon, Nora Chester, Cynthia Darlow, Francesca Di Mauro, Todd Gearhart, Larry Keith, Darrie Lawrence, John Plumpis, James Prendergast, Scott Schafer.
  Scenic Design: Bill Clarke
  Costume Design: David Toser
  Lighting Design: Lucrecia Briceno
  Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission
  Theater Row's Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, (212) 279- 4200 Tickets ($20)
 From 4/27/08; opening 5/05/08; closing 5/24/08.
Monday, Thursday, Friday at 7:30; Saturday at 2 & 8 and Sunday at 3.
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on 5/01/08
Additional Notes by Elyse Sommer--May 12, 2008
I caught a performance of this lovely production yesterday afternoon. Mary Bacon is a true Williams woman. Todd Gearhart is superb as the reconceived young doctor. This is truly one of the best buys for good theater and it's too bad it's on for such a short time. Bravo, bravo-- T.A.C.T.

Bravo too to the company for the interesting program notes on the play's history and how, more than any of his plays it typifies one of Williams' obsessive rewrites, of which this is the most drastic. The extent of the changes accounts for the name change from the original Summer and Smoke, which has had more productions than Eccentricities, even though that was Williams' preferred version.

Actually, the tragic Alma was bon in 1941 as a character in an unublished short story "Bobo"— the tale of a minister's daughter named Alma who rebels against her Puritan father and becomes a prostitute, gives birth to a magical child who brings her gold and jewels. It was rewritten in 1946 as another short story, "Yellow Bird" in which Alma Tutwiler, the repressed daughter of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, begins drinking, smoking and engaging in prostitution after a yellow bird flies into the window of her parish. This in turn led to a play about two sisters in New Orleans, originally called The Poker Night which, of course, became A Streetcar Named Desire.

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