Theater : "Tennessee Williams–Original Acts" at The Vineyard Playhouse
Photo by Sally Cohn
If by chance you might not be a fan of playwright Tennessee Williams, a conversation with Joann Green Breuer — award-winning artistic associate of The Vineyard Playhouse — might convert you to the iconic American playwright's favor.
Ms. Breuer is the director of the current Playhouse production, "Tennessee Williams: Original Acts," four seldom seen one acts plays by Mr. Williams — prequels (some with happier resolutions) to "The Rose Tattoo," "The Glass Menagerie," and "A Streetcar Named Desire."
"Tennessee Williams was a man who was compassionate and lyrical and who loved women," Ms. Breuer says. "He asks you to listen — to pay attention with your heart, where Arthur Miller asks you to listen with your brain."
The one-acts being performed at The Playhouse are connected by a common thread of women protagonists, a focus on fraught relationships — mother and daughter, and lovers — and Ms. Breuer says, "a wish-fulfillment aspect."
She says, "I feel each character is interconnected. The characters progress from play to play."
Adding to the continuity are the four impressive stage, film, and television actors who shift into all the different characters: Scott Barrow, making his 15th appearance at The Playhouse; Sheila Stasack, who performed in "The Children's Hour" at The Playhouse; and Peter Stray, who has appeared in Monday Night Special readings as well as other Playhouse productions.
They first appear in "The Dark Room," which has elements of Williams's "Rose Tattoo." We watch as a befuddled, Southern-crazy mother (Sheila Stasack) feebly accounts to a visiting social worker (Peter Stray) on the wellbeing of Tina, her daughter (Dee Nelson), who has shut herself up in her darkened bedroom. "We get along the best we can," the mother says, answering even basic questions by whining that she doesn't know, as her interrogator grows increasingly frustrated. But being confined herself to her room does not mean the daughter is in isolation.
Ms. Breuer points out the playwright's emphasis on asking questions as a gesture of trying to understand and then to listen.
The next offering, "Interior: Panic," shows us Grace (Dee Nelson), trying to retrieve some sanity from her sister Blanche (Sheila Stasack) ("I have lived in a nest of snakes"), who shifts in and out of reality and her sordid past catches up with her. Grace's husband Jack (Scott Barrow) is pushed to his limit and, Blanche fears, so is her suitor George (Peter Stray).
The first part concludes with "The Pretty Trap," another slightly mad family with a non-stop jabbering mother (Sheila Stasack) trying to force Laura, her painfully shy daughter (Dee Nelson) to assert herself. As enticement, her mother offers: "You are almost as pretty as I used to be." Peter Stray plays her browbeaten brother, and Scott Barrow appears as Jim, her winning suitor.
The evening concludes with "I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays," a play within a play making its American debut on the 100th anniversary of the playwright's birth.
We watch the actors portray the slacker Tye (Scott Barrow) as the stronger, although sick and tired, Jane (Dee Nelson) reveals the fabric of their relationship as it shreds.
The play contains an autobiographical element, as it was written in 1973, when a discouraged Williams, released from rehab, was dealing with being critically maligned.
In "I Never Get Dressed…" we watch the actors challenge the logic of their lines and the merits of the script, as the playwright sits stage left, shouting instructions.
Ms. Breuer comments: "I think this is a really important work, not only as a comment on Williams' later experiences in the theater, but on his sense of himself." Although a dark journey, the actors (who for some reason shift into British accents when out of character) ultimately find their characters in a worthy portrayal. Vindication.
"Original Acts" is a two-hour cerebral exercise. Although this reviewer attended a preview performance, the acting was faultless.
"I feel incredibly lucky that they were all available," Ms. Breuer says of the cast, "because they were my first choice and my only choice."
When asked about the shift in summer theater from what once was the usual fare of comedic romps and stylized drawing room dramas, to darker, more cerebral offerings, Ms. Breuer responds: "The first obligation of theater is to entertain. We're asking people to leave their houses and spend an evening here, and we want it to be worth it."
She notes the "poignancy and comedy" in these four plays, and acknowledges that there are plenty of movies available that offer action fantasy and burlesque, saying, "We want to entertain, but maybe to offer a little nudge instead."
"Tennessee Williams: Original Acts," The Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven, Tuesdays–Saturdays through August 6. $35; $30 seniors & juniors. 508-696-6300; vineyardplayhouse.org.