Theatergoers were asked to trade arctic outdoor temperatures for tropical heat at the Friday performance of “The Night of the Iguana,” but this handsomely mounted production at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre offered more smoke than fire.
This two-act drama by Tennessee Williams shares themes with his other major plays. Williams wrote about lost souls butting up against brutal obstacles as they seek solace, if not salvation. The central figure in “Iguana” is the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Forrest Attaway), a former pastor who has been reduced to guiding tours of matronly women through the backwaters of Mexico.
A recurring storyline revolves around the question of whether Shannon was technically “defrocked” or merely locked out of his church for “fornication” and preaching atheism. Either way, he’s a guy at the end of his rope, and his gig with Blake Tours represents his last claim to respectability. Semantic argument is one of the weapons Shannon uses, however feebly, to prop up his tattered self-image. Shannon guides his bus of Baptist ladies to the remote Costa Verde Hotel, run by his old friend Maxine Faulk (Manon Halliburton), a libidinous widow who sees Shannon as a potential replacement for her recently departed husband. He then pockets the bus key, stranding the women in this shabby off-season “resort,” which may be his last sanctuary.
In addition to Shannon’s unexpected arrival, Maxine must contend with two other visitors: a middle-aged artist named Hannah (Cheryl Weaver) and her wheelchair-bound grandfather Nanno (Richard Alan Nichols), the world’s “last, living, practicing poet.” Together they drift from place to place, earning money from Nanno’s recitations and Hannah’s watercolors and quick-sketch portraits.
Employing a day-into-night structure, Williams depicts near-cataclysmic events during an afternoon, evening and nightfall on the hotel veranda. The heart of the play is the relationship between Shannon and Hannah, who instinctively sees in him a reflection of herself. They are kindred spirits, in a way, two hustlers trying to scrape by with their spiritual identities intact. As the night wears on, they exchange confessions, allowing each a glimpse of the other’s journey. Director Karen Paisley (who designed the impressive two-level set), brought together estimable actors for this piece. Chances are the show will gel as the run continues, but on Friday the entire performance seemed rushed and chaotic. The reflective moments, which are often the most potent in a Williams play, had no space to breathe and little chance to resonate with viewers. In the early going, the actors collectively seemed to be choosing volume as a substitute for intensity, blasting their lines at the audience at the cost of anything resembling nuance. The show’s heavyweights — Attaway, Weaver, Halliburton and Nichols — never quite got on the same page. Only in Act 2 were there fleeting moments when things settled down and Attaway and Weaver connected palpably. Weaver, particularly, found opportunities to project an inner stillness in Hannah that drew attention as a respite from all the teeth-gnashing.
Attaway is convincing in his depiction of Shannon’s angst, but we glimpse little of the character’s frayed intellectual acuity. Nichols renders Nanno less poignant than dryly comic. Halliburton’s take on Maxine was less desperate than shrill. Ultimately, the show couldn’t deliver the punch it should have.
A big supporting cast offers some broad-brushed comic performances: Marilyn Lynch as a “butch” chaperone, Hannah Freeman as her sexually precocious teenage ward, Bill Pelletier as a company rep who shows up to fire Shannon and take over his tour. Chris Roady pops up in the brief utilitarian role of Hank, the bus driver. Francisco Javier Villegas and Beto Martinez are a sardonic presence as Maxine’s Spanish-speaking “houseboys.” Appearing as a group of obnoxious German tourists, Nancy Nail, Adam Henry, Mackenzie Goodwin and Bruce Michael Hall deliver nicely realized ensemble performances in roles that are meant to be nothing more than farcical.
The play was written in the early 1960s and set in 1940, a year after Germany’s invasion of Poland. The German-speaking tourists are symbols of the preposterous nationalism that would soon engulf the world in war. But nothing much in this production seems particularly rooted in the past — either in the ’40s or the ’60s. Atif Rome’s costumes are thoughtful and effective, and Larry Pacheco’s lighting design drives the play’s changing moods. The sound design by Joe Concha plays an important role as characters watch storms roll in from the Pacific.
“The Night of the Iguana” runs through March 16 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. For more information, call 816-569-3226 or go to METKC.org.