Photo by Cecilia Senocak.
BOTTOM LINE: The epic vision of Tennessee Williams done in miniature, acted by a great cast in an intimate space.
When you’re in the mood for a drama about a woman, preferably Southern, who has been terribly disappointed by her relatives, a lover, or both, you’re in the mood for the works of Tennessee Williams. His most famous plays, including The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are all about social collapse in the early twentieth-century South, where idealized notions about love, marriage and family are dying a tortured, unwholesome death. Williams was justly awarded a Tony and two Pulitzers for his full-length dramatic works.
Less well known by today’s audiences are Williams’ one-act plays, despite the fact that some were adapted (by the playwright himself) for the screen. “27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” for example, became the film Baby Doll, directed by frequent Williams collaborator Elia Kazan; “This Property is Condemned” was expanded into a starring vehicle for Natalie Wood and Robert Redford. Those pieces, along with “Hello from Bertha,” have been brought back to the stage by a new company called Pook’s Hill in a production entitled Something Wild… (For me, that phrase conjures up images of Melanie Griffith in a black wig — search for it on IMDB if you don’t know what I’m talking about — but here it refers to a 1948 essay in which Williams describes good theatre as “benevolent anarchy.”)
This is the inaugural production for Pook’s Hill; Ken Schatz leads the company and directs this show. A longtime teacher of acting, Schatz works mini-miracles with his cast, who inhabit Williams’ long-lost South as if they had been raised in it. The performances are technically impressive — the accents and physicality of the time and place are spot-on — but more importantly, they are imbued with the sensuality and desperation that make Williams’s characters so fascinating. Like most of Williams’s best plays, these three one-acts focus on the exploitation and betrayal of women, and the actresses in the central roles rise to the challenge. Samantha Steinmetz gives a gutsy, nuanced performance as Flora, the slow-witted and vulnerable wife of an abusive lout, in “27 Wagons.” Andrus Nichols, whose work last season in BEDLAM’s Saint Joan was award-worthy, is heartbreaking in “Hello from Bertha,” playing a prostitute in the throes of a physical and mental breakdown. Last but not least, in “This Property is Condemned,” Tess Frazer shines, almost literally, as Willie, a young girl reduced to living alone in a broken-down house and scrounging food from the trash after the loss of her family, who in today’s parlance would be labeled “dysfunctional,” to say the least.
Performing in the tiny Strelsin Theater at the Abingdon Arts Complex , Something Wild… has little more than the bare minimum in terms of set (and sometimes, not quite enough), but it’s clear the plays, and the actors, are meant to be front and center, and luckily, both are worth the attention. Williams’ genius for dialogue, and his unerring insight into human frailty and life’s cruelty, are no less evident here than in his longer, more famous works. He may have lived and died in the last century, but if Pook’s Hill has anything to do with it, his oeuvre will continue on as vital as ever.
(Something Wild... plays at The Abingdon Theater Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, through October 6, 2012. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $18, available at 800.838.3006 or BrownPaperTickets.com.)