Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Such A "Night."

By Dalt Wonk

MARCH 23, 1998:  Tennessee Williams referred to the 1960s as his "stoned age." It is eerily fitting that this decade of stasis and decline should have been ushered in by Night of the Iguana.

One cannot say that Iguana's protagonist, the (defrocked) Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, is in deeper psychic water than Blanche of Streetcar or Brick of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But Shannon's will is more completely shattered, and there is a voluptuousness in his surrender to hysteria that is new and alarming.

Up to this point, Williams' central characters have been inseparable from the world of their conflicts -- a world almost invariably drawn from what I suppose we now would have to call the old "New South."

They fight their battles often with a doomed and flawed sort of heroism. But they are rooted. Even their rootlessness is rooted, paradoxical though it may sound. For example, Chance Wayne, the handsome young drifter in Sweet Bird of Youth, returns to his hometown to fulfill his destiny. And Tom Winfield, the narrator of Glass Menagerie, is a wanderer, but the story he relates -- the action of the play -- is locked in a familiar and indigenous context.

But in Night of the Iguana, the hero has fled to the ends of the earth. Mexico is a placeless place for him. It is an absence where his inner collapse can manifest itself without restraint. This placelessness is symbolized by the only Mexicans in the play, the mysterious houseboys, who are more like nature deities than flesh-and-blood mortals.

The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon has lost not only his own psychic moorings, he has lost a coherent world in which to play out his drama.

And he is, it seems to me, not merely a new "hero" in the Williams' canon, but a new kind of hero. He puts on no brave, proud front to disguise his despair. He wallows in it. He sputters, froths, cajoles and whines. He is openly and histrionically disintegrating. And he is taught a lesson in dignity by the most monochromatic of the great Williams heroines, the New England spinster Hannah Jelkes.

Hannah Jelkes also is homeless. She has wandered the globe with her grandfather, Nonno, the world's oldest living and practicing poet. But spiritually, she has never left home. She is uncorrupted, hewing with an unassuming courage to a principled code of behavior marked by kindness and decency. Her circumstances are humiliating, but she cannot be humiliated.

After Shannon's bombastic egoism, Hannah easily steals the show with her prim, muted candor, especially in the memorable scene in which she recounts the two sexual encounters of her life -- both full of sad and twisted longing.

In the recent production directed by Ken Conner at the CAC, the strengths and the weaknesses of the script could be seen in high contrast. The supporting roles, written with a much firmer dramatic hand, invite clear characterization. The central role, for all its garrulous self-immolation, lacks just those suggestive reticences that win our sympathies.

Adriana Bate created a brave, worldly wise Hannah Jelkes, while Bob Gault had a wry, bewildered charm as the dying old poet trying to complete his final poem. Susan Muth was perfectly believable as Miss Judith Fellowes, the "diesel-driven" chaperone. Jim Chimento (Hank), Jennifer Pagan (Charlotte Goodall) and Scott Muller (Jake Latta) did credible work, while Carlos Aborez and Oscar Enamorado brought a remarkable life -- understated, but unmistakable -- to the Mexican houseboys.

The role of Maxine Faulk, the tough, oversexed broad of a certain age with a vulgar streak and a heart of gold, is one that demands absolute conviction. It's got to come naturally -- or at least seem so. Sara Schull certainly gave it a game try, but our belief in the character was intermittent.

As the deteriorating Lawrence Shannon, Bert Pigg performed with energy and intelligence -- pulling out all the stops. But although the role does seem to invite a relentless series of paroxysms, there is just so much emoting one can take. Unless a way is found to internalize and disguise some of the hysteria, we stop watching and begin observing.

Anne Bendernagel's costumes were handsome and apt, and Franklin Adams' design for the Costa Verde Hotel was an effective mixture of verisimilitude and imagination.


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