Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Intermission Talk, for June 3, 2009

by Tony Vellela

Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Vieux Carre and Blithe Spirit

Where to?

Most great plays share a common trait - they take you to a place you've never been. And three current offerings present great choices. You can languish in the Depression-era squalor and sordid glamour of New Orleans, clink champagne glasses and exercise funny bones in the elegant British countryside of the '30s, or peel back the layers of Black America's broken promises in the early twentieth century Hill District of Pittsburgh. Wherever you choose, it's a helluva good place to spend some time.

August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," is set in a boardinghouse in 1911. Lloyd Richards, who worked with the playwright while it was being developed, and directed the original Broadway production in 1988, once told me that he felt it actually took place "in a kind of way-station, a stop-off, where people stop off on their way to someplace else. It was a play I envisioned as being in the middle of the desert."

Director Bartlett Sher actualizes that same sentiment in the current stunning revival at the Belasco. Moveable realistic set pieces create almost a hallucinatory illusion of a 'place,' and it is the blood-pulsing characters and their sulfur-infused tales that ignite real-world reactions as they spring to life. Central to the story of three floors of bedrooms maintained with decent standards by a solidly-married couple, and occupied with travelers, is that of Harold Loomis and his young daughter Zonia. His wife disappeared while Loomis was in prison, and now he searches everywhere for her, the little girl at the end of his hand every step of the way.

There are no weak performances here, and the spiritual essence of these souls emerges despite the despair, transience and bitterness that govern their minds and actions. Roger Robinson, as one of Wilson's iconic myth-carriers, and Chad L. Coleman as Loomis anchor a production that fairly glides above the surface of the scorched earth that holds these characters back, even as their spirits fight to set them free.

Another boarding-house, this one in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1938, also shelters travelers, but this time its landlady is as much of a lost soul as her handful of guests. And she provides a young, indigent writer with her skewed insights into human behavior, even as he begins to explore the off-color hues in his own personal pallet. When Tennessee Williams finally completed "Vieux Carre" in 1977, it had been gestating from his original drafts four decades earlier. Williams scholars and other theorists with a familiarity that lets them speak Williams-ese glimpse the essence of many of his ladies and their men in these hapless denizens, from Alma as she descends into her post-sanctimony, and Stanley's prideful ignorance and carnal domination, to the pitiful Hannah, sketching tourists for pennies, and the two Southern ladies in "Something Unspoken." The Writer, a first cousin to Tom, another Williams alter ego, is a soft young man given that necessary bit of warmth this hollow creature requires by the focused Sean McNall, and gets himself woven into all their fleeting lives. The lethally-stricken, gay tubercular 'artist' Nightingale, given the unapologetic fatalism he wallows in by the remarkable George Morfogen, slowly thaws the Writer's defenses.

Sean McNall and George Morfogen

 

Williams evinces a kind of magic trick with this deceptive play. This could appear to be a pipe dream of Blanche, her imaginings of where she would have wound up if Stella and Stanley had moved away and left no forwarding address. Yet the sentimental potential has been kept gently in check, the stories told with Big Daddy's no-nonsense lack of flourish.

Director Austin Pendleton has pulled off a hat trick of his own, aided by the fluid set he and set designer Harry Feiner created to solve the issue of a three-floor, narrow, dilapidated, historic building taking place on the confines of the Pearl Theatre Company's stage. "Vieux Carre" gets few productions because of its seemingly rambling dramatic structure, where vignettes and scene fragments get scattered across the footlights like crumbs to pigeons, just enough to keep them/us from starving, but never a complete course. However, Pendleton lets his actors provide the seasoning, the garnish, and most crucial, the sauce. And this one has plenty of hot, tangy and even tongue-searing sauce.

Titles often become so familiar that their actual meaning is left unexamined, which has happened to Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." Unless you actually know what 'blithe' means [and it's not a misspelling of Gwyneth's Mom's name], you may miss Coward's central point: Elvira, the departed first wife of a successful mystery-writer, who has come back from the dead to haunt him and his new wife, is 'blithe,' which it to say, carefree, or in the original definition, gay.

And why not? She's got nothing to lose. She's been conjured up by a clumsy medium named Madame Arcadi, brought in as after-dinner parlor entertainment. Elvira [Christine Ebersole] can only be seen by her bewildered ex-spouse George [dashing Rufus Everett], caught at the fulcrum of a living-and dead love triangle. Seen or unseen, Elvira makes merry mischief in an attempt to show George just how dull he's become, thanks to his current properly-stuffy wife [a measured, menaced Jayne Atkinson], when compared his former self, when he relished the fun-loving antics of his first marriage. Old oft-revived period pieces get labeled 'old chestnuts,' but this one, this time, feels sophisticated, wry, witty and bursting with life, qualities not seen or appreciated on any so-called television comedies of the last few years [decades?].

Photo: Sylvain Gaboury

Age plays no discernible part also in the eternally-energetic Angela Lansbury, well into her eighth decade as one of the world's most versatile and cherished actors. Some formidable women have tackled the divine diviner. Margaret Rutherford, like the human embodiment of a British warship, stole the 1945 film version, all guns blazing. Beatrice Lillie crooned her spells as the musical Madame in "High Spirits," in 1964. Geraldine Page created a somewhat befuddled, gentle soul in the 1987 Broadway revival, her last role. This Madame A., the shimmering incarnation of another Madame A., commandeers the stage with guile born of craft, and her wise fellow cast-members willingly and wisely step back and let us all marvel at this glorious, golden performance.

On Book
Toss out all those Sunday supplement and Magazine insert recommended reading lists. This summer, in or out of town, let plays take you to another place, courtesy of Williams, Wilson and Coward. Happily immerse yourself in their enthralling legacies of searing characters, epic sagas and big, big laughs.

If your bookshelf already houses the major [read 'well-known'] Williams works, turn to the later plays. From "Orpheus Descending" to "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur," and including "Vieux Carre," pick up the Library of America collection compiled by Mel Gussow and Kenneth Holditch. Fill unfilled Saturday mornings with a one-act from "27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other Plays," from New Directions. And chuckle your way through the autobiography "Remember Me to Tom," by The Mom, Edwina Williams.

The Hill District of Pittsburgh may seem like an unlikely place to visit for any length of time. August Wilson expertly crafted a ten-play cycle, one for each of the twentieth century's decades, and deciding to 'live' in each for one week at a time will give you endless answers on Labor Day to 'what did you do last summer?' In order, they are "Gem of the Ocean," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" [the only one not set there, but in Chicago], "The Piano Lesson," "Seven Guitars," "Fences," "Two Trains Running," "Jitney," "King Hedley II," and "Radio Golf." And you do not need to know anything at all in advance about Pittsburgh, African-American history, August Wilson's biography or the twentieth century to savor every single page of these great works.

And to insure a blithe couple of hours whenever the spirit moves you, smile and smirk your way through several other Coward comedies. Both "Noel Coward Collected Plays: Four" published by Methuen Drama, and "Three Plays: Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever and Private Lives" from Vintage Books, guarantee that same level of giddy, witty pleasure that a precious handful of thirties film comedies also deliver, with their 'you can be smart and still be silly' formula that very few know how to master.


TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for "The Christian Science Monitor," writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies". His work has also appeared in "Parade," "Theatre Week,"" USA Today," "Dramatics," "Rolling Stone," and several other publications.

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