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En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams

By William Shuman; Directed by Ruis Woertendyke

 

BOTTOM LINE: A gentle and delightful round of afternoon drinks with a tortured and brilliant playwright.

With a drink first, “before we spend a little time together,” Tennessee Williams welcomes the audience into his Heaven, a quaint spot in the afterlife with a small table covered in books and a second-hand typewriter, as well as a decanter of whiskey with several snifters, a hospitable spread. At the center is a large wicker peacock chair -- a throne for our host. The space is intimate and comfortable, just as a space should be when entertaining, and Mr. Williams is a most gracious host, giving us full access to his life, the stories behind his plays, and the fragile, broken spirit of a literary figure that so many of us at once both revere and pity.

En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams is a long, gentle afternoon in the French Quarter, drinking and talking with a friend. In “not strictly chronological order," writer and star William Shuman generously gives us the life and fears of a man misunderstood since childhood. He is quick to dispel common thought (mother Edwina is not Amanda, sister Rose is not Laura) and is unafraid to confront his doubts about his own talent. His poetry and wit pour like the constant whiskey refills, and despite the conversational rapport, it’s plain to see that even in death, Williams remains a wounded man.

Meaning “move forward” or “onward,” “en avant” is a philosophy adopted by Williams and utilized masterfully by Shuman. This representation of Williams is of a man always one step ahead of the blue devil, who to Williams represented death, though it might as well have represented the always-present fears of failure, loneliness, and insecurity. As Williams speaks, the devil approaches, and when the playwright senses he’s too near, he washes him away with a drink and a “en avant.” In the role, Shuman is a fragile star, always threatening to burn too bright until there's nothing left.

Under the delicate (and dare I say "loving") direction of Ruis Woertendyke, En Avant! is deceptively light. So conversational, you often want to ask a question of the man, but it soon becomes clear, as Shuman’s movements become frail and heavy with sadness, that genius and sadness often make the best drinking buddies. By the end, Woertendyke and Shuman craft a Williams who is as intoxicated by the highs and lows of living, the brief connections with the few loves of his life, the burden of artistic success, as he is the whiskey which has, by this point, nearly run dry.

There is a sadness present in En Avant that feels so natural to a man who used his words “as a means for exorcising my own demons.” And though perhaps it’s too late for Williams to find this discussion therapeutic, it’s a wonderful chance for us to get a glimpse at the simple, sweet nature of this wounded genius.

(En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams played at Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center's Kabayiots, 107 Suffolk Street, through August 24, 2013. Tickets were $15 in advance, $18 at the door and were available at fringenyc.org or by calling 866-468-7619.)