by MAUREEN LEE LENKER
[dropcap]Tennessee[/dropcap] Williams could arguably be dubbed an American Shakespeare — a playwright who, in capturing a singular vision of the mid-twentieth century American South, also conveyed deeper, more universal truths about desire, loneliness, sensuality, and the singular beauty and pain of being alive. Indeed, his Pulitzer Prize winning plays and their accompanying screen adaptations, A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), have become an integral part of the fabric of American culture and theatre. Marlon Brando’s bellowing, water-drenched cries of “Stella!” are parodied everywhere from Seinfeld to Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.
Yet Williams’ writing career spanned decades — from his 1945 Broadway debut with The Glass Menagerie to less well-received works that he wrote up until his death in 1983. While regional theaters across America produce classics like Streetcar, Cat, Menagerie, Night of the Iguana, and Summer of Smoke, many of Williams’ one acts and later plays have been left to the annals of history (for re-discovery by theater buffs and Williams’ devotees).
This summer, three lesser known works are taking the stage across Los Angeles – 1968’s Kingdom of Earth at the Odyssey in a guest production; 1962’s The Eccentricities of a Nightingale at Pacific Resident Theatre; and a new adaptation based on the 1956 screenplay of Baby Doll at the Fountain. The plays all offer many of the same themes that dominate Williams’ classics, while offering a glimpse at his development and shifting concerns in the latter half of his career.
While Kingdom of Earth and Eccentricities of a Nightingale received full-scale Broadway productions but remain infrequently produced, Baby Doll is the West Coast premiere of a new adaptation of a Williams’ screenplay. As Fountain Theatre Artistic Director Stephen Sachs describes it, “It’s not that we’re producing a play that’s been around and rarely seen. It’s a brand new work, and an opportunity to see a new play by one of our major playwrights.” The screenplay was itself based on a lesser-known Williams’ one-act, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton.
The plays have wildly different histories and were held in varying degrees of esteem by Williams. Though he admitted to being in no condition to refine and edit it at the time of writing, Williams considered Kingdom of Earth as good as many of his most classic works. The Eccentricities of a Nightingale was a rewrite of his earlier hit, Summer and Smoke, which (according to the Author’s Note preceding the play in various editions printings) Williams said he preferred to the original, more lauded production. Baby Doll remains a mystery as many believe that Williams had little to do with the screenplay and left the majority of the writing to director (and long-time collaborator) Elia Kazan.
Whether a new adaptation or merely a lesser-known play, it is undeniable that many of Williams works have received short-shrift in favor of his masterworks. As Baby Doll director Simon Levy puts it, “There are great ones that get done all the time and then there are problem plays.” But is this trio of plays truly a problem? Have they simply been overlooked, or is there something inherent to these scripts that makes them less popular? Or perhaps, were they ahead of their time and have aged into contemporary relevance?
The artistic teams behind these current productions admit to the problematic nature of the plays, with uneven scripts, wandering pacing, and occasionally less nuanced character development from what defines the major works. Kingdom of Earth director Michael Arabian calls the script in its unproduced form “very problematic,” and Eccentricities director Dana Jackson describes its predecessor Summer and Smoke as a “cleaner built play.” But Williams wrote characters that were messy, passed over, and complicated.
“His focus is the people with the broken wings that people walk by and don’t notice,” explains Marilyn Fox, Pacific Resident Theatre’s Artistic Director. “He tends to show you how you shouldn’t ignore anybody, and how these people have the most beautiful and sensitive souls, and the most courage.”
Choosing to stage these passed-over works, then, seems itself parallel to what Williams did with the outcasts and misunderstood “lost souls” that sit at the center of his work. If they are difficult, problematic works to tackle, they also come with the opportunity to shine a light on the themes that drove their playwright — as well as to bring these themes into contemporary cultural conversations.
“There’s no mistaking that you’re watching a Williams play,” says Levy. “It’s got that evocation; it’s got that Southernness that’s so central to Tennessee’s work; and then, he loves to balance what I would call dark, gothic humor with the underlying [tragedy].” Levy says this about Baby Doll specifically, but it aptly describes all three of these lesser-known works — perhaps problematic in construction, but still distinctly Williams at their core.
In Kingdom of Earth, he brings both race and homosexuality to the forefront of the action — while most of Williams’ plays introduce characters with a gay subtext and deal with issues of sexual repression and subversion, this is a departure. Director Michael Arabian says, “This is the first play where he ‘comes out’ as writer regarding being gay openly, regarding transgender [issues], which wasn’t even a word in the 60s, I don’t think, and regarding racism.”
While issues of racism and “the other,” as well as in-depth explorations of sexual identity run throughout Williams’ oeuvre, the plays of the 1960s like Kingdom of Earth tackled these themes more directly — a shift in cultural mores and concerns enabling him to speak about things previously resigned to coded subtext. Arabian notes that ongoing discussions of race, sexuality, and justice make the play more pertinent and exciting than perhaps even at its debut in the tumultuous times of 1968.
Similarly, director Dana Jackson sees The Eccentricities of a Nightingale as a perpetually relevant text because of the play’s examination of sexual identity and the human struggle to claim and express that sexuality honestly and freely. “Even though you might say that one’s rights have come very far,” she explains, “it’s always really important to remember how hard won that fight was and still is for people to be essentially who they are without judgment in the world.”
Williams frequently called out Alma Winemiller, the protagonist at the heart of Eccentricities, as the character closest to himself because of the combination of her fragility, her social difference, and her coming into her sexuality later in her life. Jackson cites this fragility and Alma’s combination of delicacy and strength as another reason the play deserves more recognition.
“It speaks to the fragility in all of us, which is why it resonates and it’s timeless because it’s scary to be a person in the world,” she says. “If you’re really, really existing and really looking at things around you, it can be terrifying… to try to be true to who you are and also survive.”
Williams’ strikingly political and social concerns also continue to hold a mirror up to the world we’re living in today. “What I love about the play,” says Sachs of Baby Doll, is that it taps into what makes Tennessee eternally thrilling, which is the poeticism and sensuality, but it also is so socially and culturally relevant.”
Like Kingdom of Earth and Eccentricities, Baby Doll also deals with a fragile female protagonist seeking to express and understand her own sexuality, but it engages further with deeper questions of race and intolerance. “It’s more than just a play about sex and sensuality, although that is certainly the engine that drives the piece,” says Sachs. “It’s also about the immigrant and the deep-seated bigotry that still festers in this country. It’s part of this nation’s DNA — that kind of distrust and suspicion.”
Baby Doll is a slight departure for Williams in its depiction of the other as not merely a social outcast or sexually subversive individual — indeed, it even offers a more ambiguously happy ending than much of his work. “Baby Doll is the closest you’ll get to a Williams version of a rom-com compared to the rest of his plays,” says Levy. That is—if a rom-com were laden with issues of bigotry and an examination of the fear, hatred, and explosiveness that such mistrust can breed.
It is this relevance, this sense that all of these productions, when stripped of period trappings, could be telling the story of present-day Americans that makes these productions worthy of revisiting. Ultimately, wounds of race, mistrust of those dissimilar to us (whether due to skin color, sexuality, or merely differences of character), and the undeniable allure and destructive nature of desire are all issues we grapple with almost daily. Williams chronicled the world and human beings he knew intimately, but that specificity and intimacy has translated to an enduring resonance. The scripts may be imperfect and challenging for directors to craft into a unified vision, but they bely deeper and inescapable truths that defy their decades of neglect.
“We get to know some of our national playwrights so well,” says Sachs. “We take the major works for granted and neglect the little gems that they’ve written that don’t get the same attention. It’s really enjoyable to present these works and hold them up to the light and see how they glisten, because they do. They are rich, and although some of them are not as fully formed as some of the major plays may be, they still are substantial and meaningful and worthy of a new look.”
NOW PLAYING: KINGDOM OF EARTH at the Odyssey Theatre, through August 14.
NOW PLAYING: THE ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE at Pacific Resident Theatre, through September 25.
NOW PLAYING: BABY DOLL at the Fountain Theatre, through September 25.