By Beatrice Williams-Rude
A most remarkable theatrical event is taking place at 59E59 Theaters: a sextet called Desire, comprising six plays by contemporary authors based on works by Tennessee Williams.
An artist doing a riff on another artist’s work is hardly new. Brahms variations on a theme by Haydn, Rachmaninoff’s variations on a theme by Paganini, everybody’s variations on Mozart’s “La Ci Darem la Mano”, and who can forget Moisés Kaufman’s splendid play 33 Variations about Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations? Maxwell Anderson and Eugene O’Neill played with the ancient Greeks, the former with Medea (Wingless Victory) the latter with Mourning Becomes Electra.
What makes Desire unprecedented, is its scope and the freedom of each playwright to handle the material creatively while projecting the flavor of arguably the nation’s most lyric playwright. This dazzling presentation by The Acting Company was produced by Margot Harley. The artistic director is Ian Belknap.
Drawing out the uniqueness of each playwright’s offering while retaining the Tennessee Williams aura is no mean feat, and Michael Wilson’s brilliant direction accomplishes it with panache.
The first work is The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin, by Beth Henley. As the very young Roe and Tom play in the backyard they are interrupted by Roe’s having to leave for her piano lesson, which Tom resents. Still more does he resent Richard, the violinist with whom Roe is going to play a Chopin duet, The thread of mental illness which is present in many of Tennessee Williams plays manifests here. The play is evocative and bears resemblances to Impressionistic paintings. Roe is wonderfully portrayed by Juliet Breit, and Tom (probably representing Tennessee Williams himself) skillfully done by Mickey Theis. Brian Cross plays Richard Miles tenderly and charmingly. Miss Alley, mother and grandmother are played by Kristen Adele, Megan Bartle and Liv Rooth.
The second offering is Tent Worms, by Elizabeth Egloff. Set on Cape Cod at the end of summer, on the surface it concerns a man, Billy, determined to get rid of the tent worms destroying a tree. He becomes obsessive eventually setting everything within reach of his blow torch on fire. If we’d any doubts he was bordering on madness they were dissolved by the phone conversation of Betty, Billy’s wife, and a doctor, seemingly a psychiatrist. Billy was played with maniacal energy by Derek Smith, and Betty, with humor and grace by Liv Rooth.
Next came You Lied to Me About Centralia, by John Guare and, no, it’s not about the mine disaster, but about the railroad station. This is a fascinating take on what happened to “the gentleman caller” in The Glass Menagerie after his encounter with Laura and Amanda. Mickey Theis is Jim, gruff at first because of the dispute about where he was supposed to have met Betty, his fiancée. Then as he discusses where he’d been and talks about Laura with such warmth and sensitivity, Betty wonders if he’s fallen in love with her.
Betty, delightfully portrayed by Megan Bartle, had gone to visit an uncle in the fond hope of extracting enough money from him for a down payment on a house. In those few moments when Jim is speaking about Laura, we get a wistful feeling of what might have been.
The fourth play Desire Quenched by Touch, by Marcus Gardley deals with masochism. Yaegel T.Welch is riveting as the masseur; Derek Smith convincing as the detective charged with finding a missing person, Burns. Burns, the client who wanted ever more pain inflicted on himself, was effectively played by John Skelly.
The fifth play, Oriflamme, by David Grimm, imagines Alma Winemiller, here named Anna, after the curtain falls on Summer and Smoke. In a stunning performance by Liv Rooth–her Anna is more Blanche than Alma–she evokes the very essence of Tennessee Williams. Derek Smith plays Rodney, the not-so-gentle man in the park with great humor.
The final piece, The Field of Blue Children, by Rebecca Gilman gets back to insiders versus outsiders, the football set trumping the poets, and how the emotionally fragile can be crushed. The sensitive souls in this and other works by Tennessee Williams rarely connect as they (and we) would like: not Blanche and Mitch, Alma and John, not Laura and the gentleman caller, not Hannah Jelkes and Lawrence Shannon in The Night of the Iguana.
The theme central to Tennessee Williams’ sensibility and thus the name of this production: the opposite of death is desire.
The effective scenic and projection design are by Jeff Cowie; lighting by Russell H. Champa; costume design by David C. Woolard, original music and sound design by John Gromada.
Reader alert: Get your tickets ASAP. It’s selling out and word of mouth is so positive it’s likely to continue to do so.
Desire will be at the 59E59 Theaters through Oct. 10.
Photos: Carol Rosegg