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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Night of the Iguana
By Elyse Sommer
The time is 1940 so that the coastal and emotional storms brewing in Maxine Faulk's little hotel might seem trivial when compared to the world wide disturbances of the war raging in Europe. But Williams was not a political writer, so no major damage is done by director Cato's streamlining the script by deleting the original production's four German tourists whose main function was to express glee about the bombs devastating London (these characters were also expunged from the 1964 film adaptation). This less populated version of the play (I seem to recall previously seeing more of the Texas teachers detoured by their reverend-turned-tour guide to Maxine's hotel instead of a more centrally located, modern hostelry) works well for BTF's rather narrow stage and Carl Sprague's beautifully efficient impressionistic scenic design.
Most importantly, what's untouched is the poetry that was and still is the hallmark of Williams' greatness and the sad wonderful characters, whose kinship to other Williams characters who would be stereotypical sexy vamps and fragile loserss in the hands of a less remarkably gifted writer. Here we have Maxine Faulk as the Williamesque vamp. and Hanna Jelkes and Reverend Shannon as the lost, lonely souls, the latter as unable to survive as the iguanas caught by the Mexican fisherman and tied up and teased before finally being eaten. But for all the poetry and sadness there's the humor. Having last seen this play in 1996 I'd forgotten just how funny it is.
The excellent cast features two actors well known for their screen work. Never having seen Terminator and Terminator 2 I was unfamiliar with Linda Hamilton but she's deliciously brash, bosomy and bossy as the sexually avaricious widow Maxine Faulk. Though she's tough and controlling, Hamilton also conveys a streak of vulnerability that's as typical of Williams' sexual predators as his losers.
I also never saw Garret Dillahunt on Deadwood, but I do remember how ably he tapped into the melancholy beneath the the incorrigibly flirtatious Hector Hushabye in another Cato directed BTF revival, Heartbreak House. As the defrocked Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (and Williams alter ego and the play's Blanche DuBois counterpart), Dillahunt is attractive enough to make his seductions credible enough, sufficiently worn and desperate to make it evident that he is on the verge of nervous collapse. He also manages to be wryly funny, as when he describes how he became " inactive in the church" just a year after being ordained.
Amelia Campbell, whose drop-dead performance in Tryst (review) raised that off-Broadway production several cuts above the ordinary meolodrama it might otherwise have been, might strike some as too young to be the world wandering portrait artist Hannah Jelkes but she fits Williams description in the script perfectly: "She is remarkable looking, ethereal, almost ghostly. She suggests a Gothic cathedral image of a medieval saint, animated. She could be thirty, she could be forty; she is totally feminine and yet androgynous-looking, and almost timeless." Campbell's at once shy and haughty New England spinster projects the resilience needed for Hannah to survive the hard scrabble wandering life with her ninety-eight-year young grandfather Nonno a.k.a. William Coffin (William Swan)-- as well as to stand up to Maxine. You can almost believe that she could tease the shattered Shannon into becoming whole again and a wonderful new companion once Nonno dies -- but, of course, this being the world of Tennessee Williams, a happy ending is no more possible for Hannah and Shannon than it is for Laura and Tom in Glass Menagerie.
Charlotte Maier plays the rebellious bus tour's leader, Miss Judith Fellows, with apt nastiness. It is the rebellion of her group of Texas teachers against the minister-turned-tour leader's bringing them to the newly widowed Maxine's seedy but beautifully located hotel instead of the one listed in the tour program that propels the plot -- not to mention Miss Fellow' disgust at Shannon's interaction with the tour's talented youngest member, Charlotte Goodall (Lauren Orkus). Lauren Orkus plays her big scene with enough shrillness to make Shannon seem downright wise when he rejects her insistent demand for marriage ("Honey girl, don't you know that nothing worse could happen to a girl in your, your--unstable condition--than get emotionally mixed up with a man in my unstable condition, huh?. . . Two unstable conditions can set a whole world on fire, can blow it up, past repair"). The young actors doing double duty as Maxine's bed partners and handymen get to display more pectoral splendor than acting jobs.
William Swan who plays the fourth major character has credentials that are a mile long, many with BTF. However, he is somewhat disappointing as the aging poet who's swallowed up his granddaughter's life. He's got the old man's walk down pat and according to the stage directions he's supposed to have a voice that's unusually strong for his age -- but a little old-age wrinkling from the makeup department and perhaps a wig of thinning hair might have made him appear less like an actor playing a dying old man. Of course if he weren't allowed to speak in a 98-year-YOUNG voice we wouldn't be able to hear his final poem. To close with a paraphrase from two lines from that lovely 5-stanza piece "O Courage, could you not as well/Select a second place to dwell" -- O BTF you've done quite well/ Selecting the Main Stage for this revival to dwell.
For some other productions of this play reviewed by CurtainUp, see The Night of the Iguana-- London and The Night of the Iguana-- Los Angeles
For more about Tennessee Williams, his life, work and quotations, see our Tennessee Williams Backgrounder
And here's some trivia about the play:
The Night of the Iguana opened at the Royale Theatre on Broadway on December 28, 1961 where it played for 316 performances. Besides Bette Davis as Maxine Faulk, it featured Margaret Leighton as Hanna Jelkes and Patrick O'Neal as Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon.
Other New York revivals included one at the Circle in the Square Theatre, in 1976 that ran for just 77 performances. This one featured Sylvia Miles as Maxines, Dorothy McGuire as Hanna and Richard Chamberlain as Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon A 1988 revival, also at Circle in the Square Theatre, played for 81 performances with Jane Alexander as Maxine, Maria Tucci as Hannah and Nicolas Surovy as Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon. The last New York City revival was in 1996 at the Roundabout's then home, Criterion Center Stage Right, where it played for 69 performances, with Marsha Mason as Maxine, Cherry Jones as Hannah and William Petersen as Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon.
The movie adaptation in 1964 was directed by John Huston had a really starry cast: Richard Burton as Shannon, Ava Gardner as Maxine and Deborah Kerr as Hannah. A new film is in the works but the only cast member announced to date is Jeremy Irons (too young to be Nonno so sure to be a rather over-aged Shannon)
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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