Unusual Venues, Outstanding Acting Drive The Inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival

tennA week long celebration (with some extensions) proved that, despite his bad memories of our town, nobody likes Tennessee Williams better than St. Louis. The bulk of his writing happened when he lived here and now Carrie Houk led the way in organizing the celebration of his work. It all started with “The Glass Menagerie” as presented by Upstream Theatre I already reviewed in a piece on Stage Door St. Louis.

Also mentioned in a post on FB earlier that the few things I saw during the Festival gave me an eerie feeling. This whole week seemed to awaken the ghost of Tennessee. I felt his presence in all three plays I saw and I’m not usually one to get these feelings or conjure up spirits. There was an odd familiarity in “Menagerie” that gave me a feeling of deja vu about the whole post war era that Williams manifested in this work- even though it was before my time. “The Two-Character Play” was performed in a staging area at the Wednesday Club where Tennessee saw many of his plays performed for the very first time. Hence the weird feeling I felt while watching that production. And finally, seeing a series of short plays lumped under the title, “The St. Louis Rooming House Plays,” really gave me some serious chills up my spine. Performed at the Stockton House, the audience travelled from room to room and stood in the small spaces almost nose-to-nose with the actors. Again, a presence that was reminiscent of the actual people Tennessee based these people on or perhaps Mr. Williams himself. It was a thrilling sensation but one that truly gave me pause as I watched various actors bring these characters to life.

tenn-2characterYou could not ask for a better pairing in a two character play than Joe Hanrahan and Micelle Hand- two of our cities’ most celebrated actors. Mr. Hanrahan’s Midnight Company delivered the play with direction by Sarah Whitney. As a brother and sister acting team, they are on the road in one podunk town after another. Performing a play written by the brother, Felice, it involves a fictional brother and sister who are trapped by fear or circumstance in a crumbling Southern mansion dealing with the fact that their father murdered their mother and then killed himself. But are Clare and Felice the real brother and sister and performing their play after being driven to insanity by these turn of events? Are they real at all? Are we watching the ghosts of Clare and Felice or perhaps watching two characters who have come to life and living their own personal hell? It’s a fascinating study and one that lets these two fine actors show their strength. It is mesmerizing.

tenn-ben“The St. Louis Rooming House Plays” are even more ethereal and haunting. The audience is broken into four different groups and we each start and end with different plays. This makes for an interesting effect as the “ghosts” of these characters filter through from one room as you’re watching another play. The order I saw them in featured “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches” first with Peter Mayer as a beleaguered traveling salesman who is followed into his boarding house room by a bellhop that is playing a saxophone and using it to communicate. Visited by a colleague, played by Jared Sanz-Ajero, they discuss the sales business until the bellhop returns with his horn and now sporting a pair of wings. Case closed. But as we travelled to other rooms, the sound of that saxophone followed us as the other “guests” watched the play.

tenn-goldie“In Our Profession” was next for us as we saw Ben Nordstrom and Julie Layton sparring with each other as she obviously was looking for someone to settle down with and just happened to bark up the wrong tree as we can see when Christian Chambers entered the room. Next we had a sombre take on death and a last grasp of hope as Anita Jackson, as Bertha, mourned her existence while “taking up valuable space” in the rooming house and waiting for her knight in armor to return and rescue her. Donna Weinsting was a nice blend of kind and cruel while Maggie Winiger tried her best to appease Bertha.

tenn-juliacrumpFinally we entered the world of “The Pink Bedroom” as Julia Crump primps and preens, awaiting her gentleman caller in the guise of Eric Dean White. Things don’t go as planned as she eventually breaks up with him and tells him to go back to his wife while she reveals a secret hiding in the closet. Brian Hohlfeld directed this one while David Kaplan directed the other one-acts. It’s all tied together with an opening musical interlude and a short play as a “filler” while we’re waiting to proceed to one of the other rooms. Whether it’s the close proximity of actors to audience or the uneasy feeling of this old house that probably saw a lot of similar exchanges throughout the years, this series of plays was exciting yet chilling.

Congratulations to Carrie Houk, her staff, her volunteers and the amazing number of speakers, presenters, actors and directors who contributed to this amazing body of work. I just wish I could have experienced more but I’m in an unusual situation with a recuperating wife and I feel fortunate to have experienced what I did in this jam-packed week of Tennessee Williams overload. Look forward to next year. Thank you all.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: