By Lynn Venhaus
Desperation hangs thick in the air in Tennessee Williams’ richly detailed “The Night of the Iguana,” the remarkable centerpiece to this year’s fourth annual Tennessee Williams Festival.
At a rundown resort in Mexico, people are there to escape – or to hide. Everyone has secrets. They can get away, but they can’t run, just like the big fat iguana that’s tied up offstage.
The setting is not inconsequential. You can tell Cosa Verde has seen better days, and so have most of these characters. But each has a story to tell – and those looking for mercy, a glimmer of hope.
In his grand, striking poetic exposition, Williams tackles a lot here – a former minister who is a tormented soul, three primary women of different types and temperatures, and an assortment of workers and tourists. He seizes on how people fare in volatile times.
A group of crass Nazi-sympathizing Germans on holiday stand out for their gaudiness, and those roles might be tiny, but Williams is crafty in his characterizations. After all, the play takes place in the early 1940s, before World War II commandeers everything.
The metaphors are also rampant in this multi-layered masterpiece. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created such a distinct corner of the universe that you can practically feel the oppressive heat. Each cabin is like an isolation pod, mosquito net hanging, a place of solitude and reflection for some, but for others who feel trapped by their circumstances, a cage.
The brilliant Jon Ontiveros’ lighting design is a marvel of moods and atmosphere, emphasizing Williams’ intentions through Dai’s interpretation.
Ellie Schwetye, whose sound design is always memorable, layers the outdoor cacophony with lapping ocean waves, which changes to different noticeable nocturnal noises.
Meticulous director Tom Ocel has contained the sprawling story to emphasize temptation, loneliness, loss and the despair that comes from being lost.
This landmine of human emotions, ready to explode at any moment, is based on Williams’ 1948 short story, which was then developed into three acts for a Broadway production in 1961. A Tony nominee for Best Play (defeated by “A Man for All Seasons”) in 1962, actress Margaret Leighton won Best Leading Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Hannah Jelkes. Two years later, it was adapted into a steamy movie, directed by John Huston, that starred Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon.
The tormented Rev. Shannon (James Andrew Butz, in an extraordinary performance), who fell from grace in spectacular fashion – or, as he says: “heresy and fornication – in the same week,” is a self-destructive shell of a human being. He’s now driving a tour bus. Oh, the irony of escorting a group of women from a Baptist college for their pleasure.
But at a cheap coastal hotel, they’ve turned against him, the staff is on edge, and the proprietor is just trying to get through another day without incidents. LaVonne Byers is Maxine Faulk, the recently widowed owner who was something in her prime. However, she is now weary of other people’s drama – but has a soft spot for Shannon, whom she has known a long time. He can push her buttons, nevertheless. Byers plays this vigorous woman with her customary precision, turning Maxine into a strong, no-nonsense type whose past is filled with hard-fought lessons. She tosses off some terrific comical lines, too.
The brewing tempest grows out of its teacup into a full-blown squall.
The pretty young Charlotte Goodall, 16, has fancied this mysterious Shannon, and vice-versa, thus resulting in all hell breaking loose and a serious charge of statutory rape. This is the starting part. Summer Baer is impressive as the innocent, naïve lass.
As Miss Judith Fellowes, entrusted with Charlotte’s care, Elizabeth Ann Townsend is all blustery and self-righteous in her contempt for Shannon. She wants justice, and she is going to get it.
Along comes the refined Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis), whose manners belie a living-on-the-edge situation. An artistic woman whose only source of income is freelance painting and sketch work, she has accompanied her beloved grandfather, “Nonno” — Jonathan Coffin, a poet. They survive together, although he is ailing. They are just trying to get by, using whatever means they can. Harry Weber imbues Nonna with dignity.
For the prickly, mercurial Shannon, Hannah becomes something of a lifeline. She tries to save his humanity, and her spirit is revived through their encounters. Williams makes you believe in the power of their connection — “The magic of the other.” So do the actors — Butz and Sturgis are stunning in their scenes together.
Butz pretty much raises the bar for every actor in town. How he spirals out of control and goes through every emotion, depicting Shannon on the brink of a breakdown, is astonishing. He’s always a robust life-force on stage, but this portrayal is some of the finest acting we’ve been privileged to see in St. Louis.
Sturgis, whose measured demeanor is exactly how you imagine Deborah Kerr in the movie, delivers one of the finest female performances of the year. She conveys the restraint, compassion and grace of her character beautifully.
Ocel moves the large cast around to the beats of the fun-and-sun coastal setting, with a sense of foreboding and something’s off-kilter. Again, the irony of the hellish happenings occurring at such a slice-of-heaven paradise.
Costume Designer Garth Dunbar has a keen eye to distinguish the personalities through their outfits.
Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay and Hannah Lee Eisenbath provide lively portraits of the garish, loud Germans oblivious to anything but their own needs.
In minor roles, Greg Johnston is Jake Latta, Shannon’s supervisor, and Spencer Sickmann is employee Hank, Victor Mendez is worker Pedro and Luis Aguilar is worker Pancho.
The crisp stage direction and the ensemble’s commitment to immerse themselves to tell this story, with all its messy interactions, make this production stand out.
If last year’s award-winning TWF mainstage show, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” was a leap of faith, this year’s centerpiece is a masterful coming-of-age, a major step forward, strengthening Williams’ legacy and continuing a vibrant tradition.
Tennessee Williams Festival presents “A Night of the Iguana” May 9 through May 19 at The Grandel Theatre in the Grand Arts Center. Evening performances Thursday through Saturday are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday is at 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.twstl.org