12 April 2011

I wanted magic

I had been undecided about going to Aurora Theater’s production of Tennessee Williams's Eccentricities of a Nightingale, but then they combined a 7:00 start time with a bargain price, so off I went last Tuesday. The hook was that live theater is “the ultimate 3-D viewing experience” so the ticket prices were $12, which is apparently what a movie costs these days, which is yet another reason to stay home with a big-screen TV and a pile of DVDs. Actually, I think 3-D movies might cost more, making the Aurora’s price a real bargain, even with the $5 service charge for calling the box office, which you have to do because their website uses the idiotic “best seat available” method instead of letting you see every seat available and deciding which one you think is best. In fact it was buying a ticket for an Aurora show a few years ago that made me determine never to buy tickets on-line unless I could see every seat. That time I clicked about three or four of the “best seats available” until I finally found one that really was the best, waiting there all along. The woman I spoke to at the box office was very nice. And when I arrived (with plenty of time to spare before the curtain rose – the Aurora is a small theater with four rows of seats on three sides of the stage, so that’s very much a metaphorical curtain) they had free bags of popcorn in the lobby, to keep with the movie theme, which was very charming.

On to the show. I realized with some surprise that I had not actually seen many Tennessee Williams plays. In fact, except for the Glass Menagerie on Broadway with Jessica Tandy as the mother, this might be the only one. I’ve seen the film of Streetcar Named Desire many times, but I’ve never seen it on stage (I’m excluding the operatic version, which I did see). In the pre-VCR days I used to go to the Harvard Square Cinema every time they showed Streetcar, but I haven’t even seen that many of the other movies. Sometimes I wonder what it is I do with my time.

And yet, I already knew all the characters we saw in Williamsworld, as surely as if they were a commedia troupe: the domineering mother; the young man who is somehow . . . sensitive, and therefore slightly weak; the rejected eccentrics and the unimaginative conventional people who rejected them; and above all, the slightly frantic yearning virginal woman whose desperate efforts, as her youth passes under the lengthening and lingering shadow of death, to find a moment, however brief and transitory, of the fleeting poetry, the only true and living poetry in this harsh and unforgiving world, that is a soulful union with a kindred and understanding spirit, a quest which leads her, like moth to flame, into rash and self-destructive acts, whose burning fire at least convinces her that there is some vivacity possible amid the ashes. (Please, I’m not just dashing this stuff off – go back and read that last part again, and this time do it with a lilting southern accent.)

The woman in this case is Alma Winemiller, daughter of the Episcopal priest in the small Mississippi town of Glorious Hill, shortly before the First World War. She sings (hence the Nightingale), but with an excess of emotion that is considered strange by her neighbors (hence, among other causes, the Eccentricities). She loves, hopelessly, the handsome young son of their neighbors. He is a doctor like his father and though he is clearly interested by Alma’s unusual character he is also dominated by his dainty snake of a mother, who objects to Alma’s oddity even though her own grotesquely obvious and psychologically incestuous interest in controlling her son is clearly the oddest and most perverse thing we see. The story is told through a series of holiday scenes, starting and ending with Independence Day, with Christmas and New Year’s Day in between. In the epilogue (look, I’ll issue a spoiler alert, but really you can see this coming) we find that Alma is now, if not actually a prostitute, pretty much the equivalent, picking up traveling salesmen, Blanche duBois-like, with a smooth line of patter. In this scene Alma seems subtly stronger and more centered than before, finding some measure of peace in rebelling against the restrictive conventions of the town.

According to the program book, Williams used to proclaim in interviews that he was Alma. Yeah, no kidding. I think that’s the problem – he didn’t quite manage to separate her from himself enough to get a convincing perspective on what her life would be like outside of his wishful view of what it should be like. He’s too indulgent with her; take the concept of her “eccentricities” – that’s such a charming and endearing way of putting it. Try “the annoying and endless affectations of a nightingale” or “the relentless speechifying of a nightingale” – not quite so charming and endearing, is it. It’s all a matter of phrasing things a certain way, and then maintaining that perspective so that we see things in a certain light. Williams convinces you with his sinuous purple rhetoric, but once the swirling poetic clouds start to clear away, it’s difficult to remain convinced. (Sometimes Williams’s poetic effects themselves are piled on too thickly; there’s one scene in which a remarkably cooperative fire burns, dies, and revives in perfect harmony with the sexual emotions in the room, just as in a 1940s film.)

Despite the immense skill of Beth Wilmurt as Alma, I found it a little hard to accept that a life of impoverished promiscuity/prostitution was really what you might call empowering or even satisfyingly rebellious for an aging solitary woman in that particular time and place. But if we take that point of view, we’re clearly siding with the awful and unimaginative inhabitants who reject Alma’s essentially harmless ways. When she's criticized by her father for such alleged eccentricities as feeding the birds in the public park, you of course are going to sympathize with her, even as you can't help feeling that the deck is being stacked. As with the recent production of Albert Herring, I felt that we’re encouraged to take an overly simple view: we’re looking back, and down, at restrictions that seem obviously ridiculous to us. The program book assures us that this is a timeless, universal story, but that’s always an attempt to distract us from the specific situation of a particular story. Given the period costumes, the period attitudes, the southern accents, the Williams mode . . . the story starts to feel nostalgic,and even a bit campy, and Alma doesn’t feel dangerous or rebellious in any seriously threatening way. So we end up not taking her too seriously. There's a scene in which she starts drinking a little too freely, to keep her courage up, and there was lots of chucking in the audience. I don't really understand why: it's pretty clear this is not a woman who's going to have the occasional sip from the wise and Rabelaisan glass; this is a woman who's going to have major problems with alcohol. It shouldn't be cute or endearing when she starts drinking.

That’s why I felt that the play was sentimental rather than compassionate. Compassion is like a religious discipline; it’s a long-lasting way of accepting others (and ourselves) while acknowledging their (and our) awfulness. Sentimentality is more of a short-term mood, a way of overlooking anything that would keep you from seeing Alma and her circle of fellow artistic rejects in a certain noble light. You sit there admiring their brave efforts to find some beauty and dignity in life, and you walk out, start thinking of people you know like them, and have to confess you couldn’t stand living with them for very long. I felt that my judgment of them was temporarily suspended rather than deepened or changed.

These are after-thoughts. I enjoyed the play quite a lot while watching it. But despite the excellent performances, the elaborate costumes and furnishings, the smooth and effective staging, I couldn’t help feeling that it was all too safe and nostalgic. If they can reboot Spiderman and Batman, why not Williams? Strip away the period dresses, rethink the staging in a more stark and abstract way, and, above all, get rid of all the southern accents. I know they’re fun to do, but they place the speakers in a certain time and place which is automatically distant from our time and place. Yes, I’m asking for regie theater – thoughtful, provocative regie theater.

(This has been more about the play than individual performances, so I’m just going to list all the actors here, since they were all very good: Beth Wilmurt as Alma, Charles Dean as her father and Vernon, Amy Crumpacker as her mother, Marcia Pizzo as Mrs Buchanan from next door, Thomas Gorrebeeck as her son the doctor, Ryan Tasker as Roger and a Salesman, Leanne Borghesi as Mrs Bassett, and Beth Deitchman as Rosemary. Aurora Artistic Director Tom Ross directed.)


sfmike said...

If you ever get a chance to see a decent "Streetcar" live, I'd highly recommend it. The play is remarkably durable as a piece of theatre, and almost survived Andre Previn and Renee Fleming.

As for the rest of Williams' output, it's great but difficult to pull off well, partly because of those variable Southern accents you mention which actors like to garb over themselves like Elizabethan costumes. I remember once seeing a Williams one-act at some theatre festival in Santa Barbara that was so unintentionally funny that the audience was in hysterics throughout most of the last half. The poor actors, who had been rehearsing it as a Terribly Serious Tragedy for weeks, were completely bewildered by the response and you could see the panic on their faces.

pjwv said...

I'd love to see Streetcar live. It certainly works as a movie. I keep feeling it shouldn't -- there are just too many obvious touches, like "Belle Reve," kind of like the conveniently flaring fire in Nightingale -- but it really does hold its power.

At the performance a woman behind me remarked during the intermission that she really enjoyed the southern feel of the whole thing, but I think that at this point the southern accents add to the camp qualities of Williams's work. I recently read about the first American play presented by the Comedie Francaise: it was Streetcar. How do you do a southern accent in French? They were immediately freed of a lot of the traditional baggage, which lends itself so easily to parody. The director (a well-known American, but I can't remember his name offhand) set it in late 19th century Japan, figuring that this was a culture that was the equivalent of New Orleans in its refinement and decadence, its crumbling isolation and its formality and brutality.