Like most writers, playwright Tennessee Williams channeled his experiences into his work, finding poetic expression and metaphor in his life and the lives of others he had known.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
In the fall of 1940, the 39-year-old Williams found himself on the west coast of Mexico, marking time in Acapulco by writing letters extolling the beauty of his surroundings, worrying about the looming war, ranting about the failures of capitalism, self-indulgently forecasting what he assumed would be an early death and complaining about a group of hotel guests he described as pro-Nazi Germans, coarse, loud, overwhelmingly arrogant.
While there, he worked on the play that would become A Streetcar Named Desire, which he set in New Orleans. But clearly he was intoxicated by the Hotel Costa Verde, on which he would model the setting of another play, The Night of the Iguana.
The hotel is on a high cliff over the bay, which is as blue as the Mediterranean, he wrote. The beach directly below is the best in Acapulco. The water is very, very smooth and almost too warm at this time of year.
The hotel, he wrote, was surrounded by palms and mango trees with such exotic creatures as armadillas, ocelots, panthers, parrots and even some monkeys in the jungle nearby.
From this raw material, Williams fashioned one of his most compelling plays. The Night of the Iguana opened on Broadway in 1961 and a few years later became a film with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr.
The play, generally considered to be Williams last major work, is set in 1940 and depicts a small world of loneliness, grace and redemption. A disgraced Episcopalian minister, a hustling artistic spinster with her ancient grandfather in tow, a sexually precocious teenager and a carnal-minded widow running the hotel are all thrown together in a multisoul collision. The play is all about making sense of the wreckage.
Now the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre is taking on Iguana with a cast that demands attention: Forrest Attaway as Shannon, the minister struggling with a spiritual crisis; Cheryl Weaver as Hannah, the spinster who peddles drawings to tourists; Richard Alan Nichols as Nonno, her grandfather, who wants to finish a last poem before he dies; Manon Halliburton as Maxine, the bawdy hotelkeeper,; and Hannah Freeman as Charlotte, an underage girl who tries to seduce Shannon.
In supporting roles we find Marilyn Lynch, Francisco Javier Villegas and Chris Roady, among others.
When director John Huston adapted Iguana as a film, he eliminated some supporting characters and updated it to the present (circa 1964). The play has so rarely been staged in Kansas City not even at KC Rep that the movie may be the only point of reference for some theatergoers. The play, director Karen Paisley said, moves more quickly.
It goes faster, she said. Its more present to me. Richard Burton was wonderful, Ava Gardner is beautiful, Deborah Kerr is quite enchanting. But film is an entirely different medium. I think his symbolism is much stronger in the play.
Paisley said if she had to rank Williams plays, Streetcar would probably top the list, with Iguana coming in a close second.
They are very similar in the way theyre structured, she said. Working on this one, it has more hope and redemption than Streetcar does. They are like brothers and sister. Theyre just different.
One thing the two plays have in common is physical heat so pervasive that it influences each characters behavior.
Its a Southern thing, Paisley said. I think most of his plays are about the drive people have to connect with somebody else. His plays are ultimately about love and power what you need to survive and what youre willing to do to get it.
Spinning Tree has announced its 2014-15 season. For the first time the company will produce a season of four shows. Three of them will be Kansas City premieres. Dates and venues will be announced later.
Ghost-Writer by Michael Hollinger. Set in New York in 1919, this mystery depicts events after a novelist dies in mid-sentence and his secretary continues typing, insisting that shes simply taking dictation.
Violet, a musical by Brian Crawley (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori. This show was an off-Broadway hit years ago and showcased an attention-grabbing performance by Lauren Ward, a native of Olathe. Set in the South in 1964, the story depicts Violets journey by bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to be cured by a televangelist. The score is a mix of gospel, bluegrass and blues.
Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins. Higgins, a Kansas City-based playwright with a national reputation, has crafted a two-character play set in 1933 about Susannah, a song collector for the Library of Congress who discovers in a Texas prison a woman named Pearl who is a treasure trove of music and folk traditions.
Fiddler on the Roof, the classic musical by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book), winner of 1965 Tony Awards for best musical, score and book. The show, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, depicts a dairyman with three daughters who is caught between tradition and a rapidly changing world during the Russian pogroms.
For more information, go to SpinningTreeTheatre.com.