REVIEW: Tennessee Retro (The Basement)

Review by Nathan Joe

Miriama McDowell

[Southern Discomfort]

Of the three major post-war American playwrights, Tennessee Williams strikes me as the most emotionally rich and rewarding, a master observer of the human condition and poet of the stage. But, despite his influence and legacy, it tends to be The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that he is best remembered for, and often his supposedly lesser works are left untouched. With the black doris project, director and co-producer James Beaumont has made an effort to revive Williams’ earliest short plays with a talented team of emerging and established actors.

Williams, quoted in the programme notes, described his one major theme to be the “destructive impact of society on the sensitive, non-comformist individual,” but the more apparent link between these four short plays (besides all being set in the deep south) seems to be the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive. It’s an unapologetically cynical outlook, but not without an uncomfortable sense of humour running underneath—the humour of recognition and truth.

The first play, Hello from Bertha, suffers slightly from being our introduction into the tone and style of the entire production. The poetic realism inherent in Williams’ language along with Romy Hooper’s portrait of woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown—while confidently performed—is confined to a one-note script. She’s balanced out nicely by the more grounded presences of Nicola Kawana’s and Christel Chapman, but they act more as sounding boards for Hooper’s hysteria than fully-formed characters. Though offering us moments of psychological realism, it’s the weakest text of the evening, lacking real conflict or stakes, and leaving us with little more than an actor’s exercise, albeit a highly watchable one.

Next is Auto-Da-Fé, the most violent of the plays, as the characters struggle to hide hysteria and self-denial under the surface of propriety. Here, Williams lays down the groundwork for his first masterpiece The Glass Menagerie with the suffocating mother-son relationship between Mme. Duvenet (Donogh Rees) and Eloi (Alexander Walker). We watch as their shared set of puritanical values threatens to swallow Eloi’s personal identity as he shrinks into shame, paranoia and hypochondria. The level of neuroticism played by Walker occasionally risks pushing the comfort levels of the audience, resulting in some unexpected as well as expected laughs on opening night. But this is seems less a fault of the acting than the expectations of contemporary audience members towards naturalism. Hysteria can be an easy subject to laugh at, yet here it demands empathy, especially as it grows progressively harder to watch. Rees plays just the right amount of knowledge and ignorance, hinting at more awareness than she lets on. The scene falters only at the very end with the tragic climax feeling somewhat clumsy, as the demands of the story clash with the spartan set design.

Though also brimming with hysteria and misery, The Lady of Lakspur Lotion is the most comedic in tone, focussing on a confrontation between an unreliable tenant (Miriama McDowell), who manufactures fantasies and lies to cope, and the unsympathetic landlady (Emma Deakin), who is unafraid of shattering any fragile illusions if it means getting her rent. The potential breakthrough or breakdown of the McDowell’s character is prevented when “The Writer” (Paul Trimmer) intervenes, carrying some equally questionable illusions of his own. Despite a shaky accent, Trimmer injects a flamboyant flair into the scene and earns the most genuine laughs of the evening with a killer punchline. The troubling journey from dark to upbeat within the scene is the very essence of tragicomic, and conveyed perfectly by McDowell.

Lastly, and arguably the most well-known of the bunch, is This Property is Condemned. Performers Timmie Cameron and Jimmy Hazelwood project a far more gentle and downbeat tone in contrast to the theatricality of the previous scenes, playing two youths who encounter one another amongst some railway tracks. Hazelwood is perfectly cast as the monosyllabic teenage boy, unable to engage in the emotional hardship Cameron’s young girl recounts. Cameron, similarly, embodies a young girl who is unable to understand her own traumatic experiences, persevering with a happy-go-lucky disposition. The pair don’t really connect so much as pass each other by, before returning to their lives of quiet desperation. It’s the most understated of the plays, yet hits the hardest for that very reason. Character-driven storytelling at its best.

The bare traverse staging and set design, while limited, is appropriately functional, incorporating the necessary pieces of furniture and elements for each scene. At its best, it highlights the strength of the performances and the transportive quality of theatre, relying expertly on the words, sounds and lighting to do the heavy lifting. At its worst, the set elements look incomplete rather than minimalist, particularly in the case of This Property Is Condemned‘s dubious railway tracks.

Every performance brings something unique to the table, though the broken and troubled centers of each piece (Hooper, Walker, McDowell and Cameron) are the undeniable stars, giving us four painfully recognisable reflections of humanity at the edge of the abyss. Even when the performances veer towards a melodramatic or parodying tone, Beaumont’s direction ensures this feels purposeful and avoids falling into the trap of soap opera banality.

Tennessee retro is a rare opportunity to see three minor masterworks that will leave you hungry for more. Both a perfect entry point for those unfamiliar with the works of Tennessee Williams and for die-hard fans alike. A reminder that his writing remains as potent and affecting as ever, no matter if you’re in the deep south or the land of the long white cloud.

Tennessee retro is presented by black doris and plays at The Basement until 22 Oct. Details see The Basement

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe

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