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Five By Tenn
by Rich See
"Everyone expects me to write another Streetcar. I don't want to," opines The Writer (portrayed with great glee by Jeremy Lawrence), in The Shakespeare Theatre's newest production, Five by Tenn, currently running for a brief time at The Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. A magical evening of five one-act plays, four of which are world premiere productions, each of which showcases the writer at a different stages throughout his career. The above statement reflects Mr. William's love of the short story and one-act play as a medium of expression, as well as a way of making a point about something every artist struggles with -- keeping up with his or her own previous commercial successes and accomplishments. This little golden nugget is, like all of the dialogue in between each of the evening's one-acts, taken from Mr. Williams' stage directions, notes, and his 1972 autobiography, Memoirs. So in effect, the production becomes a semi-autobiographical sketch of the artist. With each play presented in chronological order of creation, you see, as the plays progress, the writer's voice emerging. Also, you can see the threads of the creative mind as elements of more famous works stand out in each of the pieces in Five by Tenn.
Director Michael Kahn shows his understanding of language and its power, both as a written form and in its delivery, to bring these vignettes to life. It's obvious he has given each production a great deal of attention and love for Williams' creative process and final outcome. Set designer Andrew Jackness has done an interesting job of creating a multi-use space, while giving each play its own look and feel. Catherine Zuber's costume designs bring back each time period in rich splendor. Composer Adam Wernick's music and Martin Desjardins' sound design tie the whole evening together, while Howell Binkley's lighting is used to wonderful effect.
Five By Tenn begins with "These Are the Stairs You Got To Watch," the only play taken out of chronological order (written around 1941) it is set in an old-time movie palace. "Stairs" describes a sixteen year old boy's slow loss of innocence when he takes a summer job as an usher. Simultaneously touching, humorous, and frightening it is both autobiographical, since Mr. Williams took a job at a movie theatre while in his youth, and a touchstone to his more famous short story "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio." And thus the evening progresses in similar fashion with each one-act shining a light not only into Tennessee Williams' psyche but also into his creative process and how as an artist he toyed with an idea, slowly shaping it until it came into full fruition. Cast standouts are Hunter Gilmore as the overwhelmed Boy, Thomas Jay Ryan as Carl the 28 year old usher on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Joan van Ark as the protective Cashier, and John Joseph Gallagher as the seemingly tough, yet ultimately overwrought, Mr. Kroger. Like so much of Williams' writing "Stairs" highlights the illusion of the refined southern culture mentality: everyone has secrets, everyone knows everyone's secrets, and the social fabric only begins to crumble when someone refuses to play the game of ignoring the never discussed secrets.
The second piece, "Escape," was possibly written while Williams was attending university and shows a man still dealing with his family relationships, adulthood, and emerging sexual identity. Not surprisingly it ends with the time period's usual stance on gay sub plots. Joan van Ark shines as the concerned, yet self-absorbed and hypochondriac mother, Mrs. Fenway, while Cameron Folmar takes the sensitive youth making his way in a home that has become a foreign land to great lengths. Kathleen Chalfant is very funny as the servant Anna until the moment of truth when she brings the pathos of the situation to touching climax.
"And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens," the third piece (written in the 1960s), shows a writer more at peace with his homosexuality and provides greater empowerment as it showcases the resiliency of gay men in facing society's disapproval as well as their own flaws and weaknesses. The longest running and funniest piece, it is also Williams' most openly gay play showcasing a drag queen named Candy who makes the astute comment "Just imagine this country without queens. It would be barbaric!" From a gay man's perspective it's interesting to see how gay self-images and culture have changed from this pre-Stonewall time period, while remaining in some respects so comfortably similar. It's a shame Williams' didn't take "And Tell Sad Stories" and create a full-length piece. Cameron Folmar is wonderful as Candy Delaney, while Myk Watford is suitably repugnant as the brutish Karl. An interesting side note is that the whole evening is up front about Williams' sexuality with The Writer making funny and refreshing little asides and knowing comments.
The second act opens with the short and surprisingly political "The Municipal Abattoir," written in the late 1960s or early 1970s, this one-act has a great deal to say to American society today about apathy, the desire for security at any cost, and current political maneuvering. Set in an unidentified foreign land, the play unfortunately suffers from having the characters' accents so thick that it is, at times, hard to understand what is being said.
And finally the evening finishes up with "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow;" a small play that showcases Tennessee Williams at his full writing prowess. The dialogue is poetic in its wordage, timing, and cadence. Kathleen Chalfant as the unnamed One is steely in her determination to take control of her destiny, even if that only means accepting the hand that fate has dealt her, while Thomas Jay Ryan as Two is a mass of nerves trying to hold onto some sense of security in his life, a desire that One advises against saying, "Repetition is only a sense of security, it doesn't guarantee it."
If you want to see Five by Tenn, you had better do it soon, because it is only running until May 9th. Which is a shame, since it is one of the high points of the 2003-2004 theatre season. Not so much because the plays break new ground or are artistically exquisite, but because they provide an opportunity to meander through an artist's lesser known works and see how he built upon his ideas, which led to his greater accomplishments. As they shouted in "The Municipal Abattoir" -- Viva!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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