Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Small Craft WARNINGS by Tennessee Williams Lives in Regeneration Theatre's Nov. Production




Around 1973, I was living in San Francisco when an actor friend called me from a phone booth to ask  if I wanted to have a drink with Tennessee Williams. Alas, I heard the message the next morning, a missed opportunity you don't forget. Mr Williams was in town for rehearsals at A.C.T. of  SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS. My friend said Williams talked about his problem with the director, who was too respectful. Unlike Kazan, who shaped his plays and made them successful, this director was careful about cutting the text. With all due respect, I am of a different opinion.

For me, the 50's naturalism extolled by the Actor's Studio (Kazan was a Founder) seems dated in 2018. And the classic  films productions of  plays Williams is known for, The Glass Menagerie,Cat on the Hot Tin Roof, Street Car focus less on the hypnotic reverie he creates on the page, the humor laced with pathos, than the laceration of secrets revealed. While those revelations are profound, the method to reach them is not written so linear and melodramatic--necessitated by naturalism. Williams' style is slower, more subtle and southern, the peeling of a psychic onion. His revelations are both expected and shocking and somehow right. I think his greatness comes in that messy ambivalence, which is the human condition.

My favorite Williams play is Camino Real. It's a mythic reverie with characters like  Kilroy, the all-American Boy with "the heart as big as a baby's head", and Esmerelda, the gypsy's daughter, who becomes a virgin with the new moon. These are two of the characters, who meet in the piazza of a Spanish speaking town in a desert, a way station of life.  The play is circular and gathers meaning with every cycle of the characters. It's beautiful, full of ironic humor.

I had little recall of Small Craft Warnings, so I was pretty curious to see how Regeneration Theatre's production, directed by Barnaby Edwards and Marcus Gualberto, would approach this play. Few directors allow Williams to meander into his shockingly inevitable endings, which are also beginnings. Nor do they allow him circular plots. So it was with pleasure that in this production I glimpsed a mature exploration of the themes begun in Camino.

Instead of the desert, there is an ocean and the haven is a bar, instead of a piazza.  Mythic Kilroy, could be a sibling to Bobby played by Christian Musto with a light in his eyes--a young man riding a bike he knows not where to experience whatever. The Gypsy's daughter is not the eternal Virgin but Violet, a broken down siren, whose hand jobs under the table,  pathetic attempts at pleasure and manipulation, are also about real love. In Jenne Vath's touching portrayal, she's both grotesque and  a generous Venus. Whether simple minded or burned out flower child, Vath gets her underlying innocense. The men are ambivalent, wanting to protect and ward her off--and their own vulnerability.

Set in the 1970s with five men and two women, the play reflects the end of the 1960s sexual revolutions. Some of those men are gay, others straight and all, except the bartender, are trying to figure out where home is; lost in a storm that's more than the weather outside. The bartender, Robert Maisonett, is a man with a mission, serving escape and a respite from that weather. He's a referee in this make-shift family of isolated people. Their comings and goings, couplings and uncouplings are a skillful peeling away layers to reveal hidden truths. At risk are the fragile moorings of identity, illusions about their lives.

Mutual respect is a buoy for the bartender and the doctor (George Morafetis) until it's at risk. But the catalyst for the play's action, whose emotion is constantly checked by the bartender, is Leona (Nicole Greevy). This "loose cannon," a hairdresser proud to have her own trailer, has reached her limit with  Bill, her hustler boyfriend, who's pride is his sexual prowess--the means to a life without work. The passions of this explosive couple are well stoked by Jed Peterson, who believes he's in control of his "mark." Yet Fiona's histrionics are less about control than a hidden idealism. Greevy's Leona may be  strident, self righteous and a know-it-all, but she's also vulnerable, kind and brave.

The conflict between Leona and Violet, best friends and  enemies, is movingly articulated. Leona's contempt for Violet is part of a strange duet of opposites. Leona rails at Violet's homelessness yet cannot ignore her erotic power.  In a sweet  perversely romantic interlude with Steve (Jon Spano), a short order cook, she's a grateful sometime roomate with benefits. Spano gets the humor and pathos just right.

These regulars and the cycles they may have been playing out ad infinitum, get a break, when Bobby and Quentin (Jason Pintar), a gay Hollywood screenwriter, enter the bar by chance. The bartender suggests they wandered into the wrong place. Wouldn't they be better at the gay bar down the beach?  Yet, they are in the right place. Quentin .adds an important facet, the storyteller sell-out who finds little of value in life. He and Bobby, who finds value in life itself,  are the outer world and perhaps the playwright's overview.

SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS  offers wonderful characters, who perform a kind of psychic strip tease, as though their lives depend on it--and they may. With self-irony and humor, the balm of the playwright, this cast brings a classic into our time. They are, like us, in difficult situations--at sea in fragile crafts. At the end of this show, I felt we all weathered the storm and will go out in a new day.

RegenerationTheatre.org  for more information.

S.W.






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