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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Small Craft Warnings
By Laura Hitchcock

Let's forget Tennessee Williams' body of work and just approach his 1972 Small Craft Warnings on its own terms. A fierce survivor who makes life knuckle to her will named Leona Dawson is the riveting central character among the habitués of a seedy beachfront bar south of Los Angeles. Leona, a beautician, lives in a trailer and whenever she gets bored or misused by her current locale, life or lover, she takes to the road. Tonight is what she calls the "deathday" of her beloved younger brother. She's reminded of him by a boy, Bobby, who comes in with an older gay man, Quentin. Bobby, who has come by bicycle from Iowa, also loves the life of the road. Unlike Leona, whose drinking reveals the pain beneath her passion, Bobby is new to life.

Other characters include Bill McCorkle, Leona's current lover, a handsome stud who has never had to do a lick of work in his life, thanks to the prowess of Junior, as he calls his sexual organ. He's a stupid, cruel user who gives new meaning to the term Cock of the Walk.

Steve, a goofy short-order cook, is entranced by young Violet, a feeble-minded girl who, like Bill, uses sex to get along but, unlike him, seems to have no other resources. Doc is a disbarred old doctor, with a veneer of courtly elegance lacing his alcoholism. Monk, the hearty harassed bartender, likes his bar just the way it is and discourages gay customers because he doesn't want it to become an upscale gay bar that will be lucratively raided by the police.

Each regular has his monologue here and, in the hands of the MESA Production Company of New Orleans, who present it at The Evidence Room, each character comes fully alive in a play that could so easily be overdone. Director Stacey Arton has brought two original cast members, Maggie Eldred and Doug Barden, from her production at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and melded them with some extraordinary local actors.

John Fleck brings a bumbling comic energy to Steve that never overpowers the character's poignance. Travis Michael Holder delivers Quentin's monologue, one of the centerpieces of the play, in a quiet conversational tone that touches the moments of arid loneliness in each of us. Wendy Johnson finds the nuances in the lost Violet, who alternates between childlike tears and pride in the room she has made attractive. Doug Barden projects the heaviness that cloaks Doc's guilt and the fragments of debonair charm that make him Monk's favorite custome. Don Oscar Smith gives Monk the independence of a small business man and pater familias to his regulars. John Joly has little to do in a brief appearance as Tony the Cop but his splendid voice makes that a shame.

Randy Irwin, after only four rehearsals, replaced Mark Soper as Bill McCorkle without missing a beat. His lascivious mean Bill vibrates with animal magnetism, persuasively demonstrating why Leona throws him out and why she wants him in.

The play hinges on Leona and this production is fortunate in having Maggie Eldred. Her foghorn voice echoes Tallulah Bankhead and she vibrantly expresses the warmth and venom found in the best of Williams' women. The playwright has given her Amanda Wingfield's dinner service, Blanche DuBois's young gay beloved, Maggie the Cat's sensuous pride. If Quentin's tragedy is that his response to life is "Oh, well", Leona's is the delusion that makes her shout down her loneliness proclaiming her devotion to "Life!"

And here's the place to talk about the play in terms of the playwright. We find his lyricism here. None of these characters wallow in self-pity, which makes them mesmerizingly good company. The remarkable achievement of this cast, in the hands of director Stacey Arton, is that they bring out the humor and humanity in Williams' people and take you to a bar where you'd be perfectly happy to stay, especially the one designed by David Raphel.

This production is scheduled to move off-Broadway this winter and to be part of The Kennedy Center's Tennessee Williams Festival in the spring.

Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Stacey Arton
Cast: Wendy Johnson (Violet), Doug Barden (Doc), Don Oscar Smith (Monk), Randy Irwin (Bill McCorkle), Maggie Eldred (Leona Dawson), John Fleck (Steve), Jerry Turner (Bobby), Travis Michael Holder (Quentin), John Joly/Justin Bowles (Tony the Cop)
Set Design: David Raphel
Lighting Design: Christopher Kuhl
Running Time: Two hours with one ten-minute intermission
Running Dates: August 7-September 7, 2003
Where: The Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, Phone: (213) 381-7118
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on.August 8.
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