Tennessee Williams: From the Page to the Stage

If you spend time with Tennessee Williams’ short stories, a few things come into sharp relief.

For one, his short fiction from the 1930s and ‘40s sometimes became the basis of his later plays, including “The Glass Menagerie” and “Night of the Iguana.”

For another, the stories vary in substance. Some are trifles. Others are profoundly disturbing and exist far beyond the realm of his works for the theater. But contemplating his short stories, many written before the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist became a household name, gives you a sense of the path he traveled as an artist. He often wrote about the elemental passions and wasn’t afraid to look into the darkest corners of human experience.

“Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams” was first performed in New York in 2015 and is now onstage in a UMKC Theatre production that shows off the talent of eight young actors in the school’s graduate training program. Technically students, most of these actors have worked professionally.

The six one-acts, crafted by established playwrights, impart humor, darkness and a certain fidelity to Williams’ moral and philosophical inclinations. But the result is a mixed bag. The writers felt no obligation to create note-for-note adaptations of Williams stories, but instead toyed with his ideas and attempted to capture something essential. These scripts are often humorous but never quite match the passion and pathos of Williams’ best plays.

Director Darren Sextro and his design team (which also includes students in the MFA program) have provided a visually striking and evocative playing environment in Studio 116, a cozy performance space downstairs from KC Rep’s main stage in Spencer Theatre.

“Oriflamme,” a two-character piece by David Grimm about a daylight encounter between strangers at a park in St. Louis, opens the show with a bang. Anna, played by Heather Michele Lawler, is incongruously clothed in a red silk evening dress and bubbles with spontaneous enthusiasms and declarations of her standards that bring to mind Blanche DuBois of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Rodney, performed by Ken Sandberg, is by implication a gambler and perhaps a driver for bootleggers or their like. Costumed in a tired suit and fedora, at times he brings to mind Blanche’s nemesis Stanley Kowalski. He is at first bemused by Anna but quickly recognizes a sexual opportunity.

Lawler walks a fine line between convincing eccentricity and Southern stereotyping fueled by our memories of some of Williams’ most vivid female characters. Sandberg has the ability to draw focus while seeming to do little. Watching him watch Anna is a big part of the enjoyment in this piece, which ends on a bleak note worthy of Williams’ best plays.

“The Field of Blue Children,” based on a 1939 story, depicts a young college woman’s struggle to reconcile the practical world with the ephemeral universe of poetry and art. Playwright Rebecca Gilman transformed the tale into a multi-character depiction of sorority politics. The antics of the shallow sorority sisters at times overshadow the two central characters — Layley (Amy Billroth-MacLurg) and the quiet poet Dylan (Charlie Spillers). This unsatisfying mix of satire and musings on love and art gets enlivened with a bizarre monologue: Layley, slowly achieving orgasm with Dylan, lapses into motor-mouth recollections of family picnics and the private, murky spiritual worlds inhabited by children. That description doesn’t really do it justice, but Billroth-MacLurg’s skillful performance makes it an indelible centerpiece in a diffuse play.

In “You Lied to Me About Centralia” an imaginative but frustrating adaptation of the story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” playwright John Guare speculates on the life of Jim, the Gentleman Caller of the early Williams masterpiece “The Glass Menagerie.” Viewers will benefit from familiarity with “Menagerie” because this is essentially a next-day narrative in which Jim (Duncan McIntyre) is angry with his fiance Betty (Megan Sells) about her journey to solicit money from a wealthy, eccentric relative. Jim then recounts his dinner at the Wingfields of “Menagerie” and his fascination with Laura, the sad girl who collects glass animals. Betty wonders if he’s fallen in love with Laura.

The most disappointing play of the evening has to be Marcus Gardley’s “Desire Quenched by Touch,” based on Williams’ story “Desire and the Black Masseur.” Williams gave us a macabre allegory about a white man who demands increasingly rough treatment at the hands of his African-American masseur. The story exerts the power of myth but Gardley turns it into something thinner and less mysterious. A police detective (McIntyre) interviews Grand (Jay Love), the masseur, about the disappearance of one of his regular customers, a masochist named Burns (Spillers). Williams’ surrealistic, horrifying ending becomes a throw-away coda delivered with a wink and a nudge.

In “Tent Worms,” playwright Elizabeth Egloff delivers a lightweight adaptation of a lightweight story about a writer and his wife summering on Cape Cod. Billy (Love) is so obsessed with the infestation of tent worms in the trees that he decides to burn them out. Clara (Chioma Anyanwu) medicates herself with one Tom Collins after another and wonders what life could be like without Billy. Sandberg appears in an amusing cameo as a studly firefighter responding to the burning woods. He has no dialogue but, again, makes a big impression with his charisma.

“The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin” by Beth Henley employs the entire acting ensemble. Henley tells the story of the relationship between young Tom (Spillers) and his older sister Roe (Billroth-MacLurg), a budding pianist on the verge of womanhood. Tom and his sister play odd theatrical games; the script opens with him portraying Christ in an absurd Stations of the Cross. But he feels Roe drifting away as she is pressured to perform a duet with a handsome young violinist (Sandberg) under the eye of a pushy Mother (Sells) and dictatorial music teacher (Lawler). A loving grandmother (Anyanwu) advises leniency but to no avail. The play is comic as well as bittersweet and allows Spillers and Billroth-MacLurg to further demonstrate their versatility. MacLurg handles the more complex role but Spillers is unsettlingly convincing as a 12-year-old.

Scenic designer Mark Exline comes up with simple ideas to unify the six plays and contributes a small moat surrounding the stage (an important factor in one episode). Imaginative costumes by L.A. Clevenson, Zoe Still and Stella Tag, and the music/sound design by Joe Robertson contribute to an atmospheric evening at the theater. Not specified in the program is who designed the inventive props. Kok’s slick projections introduce each title and the transitions are overlaid with audio clips from Tennessee Williams himself reflecting on art, politics and the human experience.

It all adds up to a smartly packaged production, which showcases impressive local talent on and off stage. Another bonus: Viewers will not encounter a whiff of commercial calculation.

“Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams” runs through Dec. 10 in Studio 116 at the Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry St. on the UMKC campus. Call the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222.

Above: Heather Michele Lawler and Ken Sandberg appear in “Oriflamme” based on a short story by Tennessee Williams.

CategoriesTheater Reviews
Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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