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Requiem For William
7 short Plays by William Inge
By Elyse Sommer
William Inge came to playwriting quite late but that arrival brought him immediate and major success as a poetic chronicler of small town lives fraught with loneliness, unrealized longings and hypocrisy. His first Broadway play Come Back, Little Sheba had critics hailing him as Tennessee Williams' heir. Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (all, like Sheba, made into movies), seemed to substantiate those predictions. But, like Williams, who befriended and helped him during his stint as a newspaper drama critic, Inge's star faded. His suicide at sixty precluded his becoming a living legend like Arthur Miller. He wasn't the stuff of legends even in his lifetime, unlike the flamboyant Williams. And so, though t Picnic, which won a Pulitzer, and Bus Stop are still regularly revived, ask anyone to name the best playwrights of the twentieth century, and it's unlikely that Inge's name will come up.
The legacy of Inge's work includes eleven one-act plays written between 1949 and 1962 and published while he was still riding the crest of his popularity. Publication of some of these rarely if ever produced playlets was the playwright's way of setting the record of his creative intent straight (The title play, Summer Brave, not included here, was his preferred version of Picnic). Publication also allowed him to address sexual situations still taboo at the time (as in The Tiny Closet and The Boy in the Basement). It is this anthology that is the basis for a tribute to William Inge by the Transport Group, which last year made news with its innovative productions of Our Town (see link below).
Even putting on seven rather than all of the anthologized eleven plays may seem like an overly ambitious undertaking. To add to the challenge, while each piece chosen by Transport's co-founder and Requiem for William's director, Jack Cummings III, is representative of Inge's major themes, most are more sketches than full-fledged plays. As it turns out, the daunting number of plays and what they demonstrate about the author's enduring strengths makes for a good fit for the company's mission to explore the work of major American writers and showcase large casts.
Cummings has molded all the pieces into a cohesive and theatrically strong whole. He has a terrific sense of balance that is evident even in the arrangement. Both the opening and closing pieces are light in tone and examine the obsession with fame: To Boboblink, For Her Spirit, the curtain raiser, is about a group celebrity autograph hunters whose leader (a very funny Tina Johnson) is president of the Tyrone Power fan club; A Social Event, centers on two would-be Hollywood stars (amusingly played by Dean Alai and Robyn Hussa) who are distraught at not being invited to a Hollywood celebrity's funeral.
Cummings' sense of framing and unifying the disparate stories is reinforced by John Story's scenic design. A central platform as well as the entire stage are strewn with autumn leaves which evokes the somber mood of the "requiem" and the deadness of many of the lives portrayed. An upstage screen projects photo images that individualize each play, the first and last of the playwright's face.
The strongest offering and the one with which Inge, according to his preface in my Modern Library edition, planned to do more is The Boy In the Basement about a homosexual undertaker (movingly portrayed by Joseph Kolinski) who is desperate to escape his homophobic and controlling mother (Marni Nixon, best known as the "Voice of Hollywood", is a standout in this non-singing role) and catatonic father (Michael Shelle, whose only words are grunt, but who gets to sing -- and very nicely so, at the end). A more fragmentary look at sexual issues not found in his Broadway plays, is The Tiny Closet. Here a rooming-house tenant's secret cross-dressing (John Wellman) is cruelly exposed by his nosey landlady and her friend (Toni Di Buono and Cheryl Stone).
With twenty-six actors, ranging from ages eight to eighty, on stage -- each one appearing in just one scene -- there's not time to discuss each in detail. Suffice it to say, that all do justice to their assigned roles.
Yet another method for pulling everything together is the music. Here's where the Mr. Cummings' ambition for the project overreaches. The music and lyrics of Michael John La Chiusa's "How Much Love?" make for a lovely musical bookend -- which, in the finale, have the entire cast joining soloist Lovette George. However, the additional songs by different and well-credentialled composer-lyricists at the end of each play are a bit too much of a good thing. Having the cast freeze at the end of each segment as one of the characters re-enters from the side to sing a sort of commentary on what just happened adds to the theatricality of the evening. However, the song interludes become somewhat repetitious, especially since the lyrics don't always add much to the words just heard. The same effect could have been achieved by replaying La Chiusa's song in more typical incidental music fashion.
Given the unique pleasures of Our Town and Requiem for William, one can only hope that the number of Transport productions will increase as the company prospers and grows.
For a review of last year's Our Town go here
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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