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You Lied to Me About Centralia
by John Guare
Directed by Rayme Cornell
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
August 22, 2021

In the same weekend that the Tennessee Williams Festival has premiered it’s excellent, site-focused outdoor production of The Glass Menagerie, they’ve also staged a much shorter companion piece featuring one of the characters featured in Williams’s classic play. You Lied to Me About Centralia is a short play–running about 20 minutes–and the tone is much more wryly comic than the headlining show–but celebrated playwright John Guare’s examination of these characters and their situation adds much to think about concerning Williams’s work as well as the ways individuals allow themselves to be influenced by others.

Guare’s one-act is based more directly on Williams’s short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”, which was a predecessor of The Glass Menagerie. Still, the story is similar enough, and the character of Jim O’Connor (Chauncy Thomas) is essentially the same, especially at TWFSTL considering that he’s played by the same actor in both productions. Thomas is joined here by Julia Crump as Jim’s fiancee, Betty, who was mentioned by name but does not appear in The Glass Menagerie. In that play, Jim mentioned that he had to pick Betty up at the train depot after her trip to visit a sick aunt in Centralia. This play–which gets its title from its first line of dialogue–imagines that meeting, and Guare’s depiction of events suggests aspects of Jim’s character–and especially Betty’s–that Williams hadn’t portrayed. 

Here. Betty hadn’t been visiting an ailing aunt–she’d been to see a rich uncle in Granite City instead, with the idea of trying to get “Uncle Clyde” to give her money to buy a house. Jim is initially upset by the deception, but his affable personality allows him to gloss it over, although we also get to see how Betty’s influence–and that of their more “socially acceptable” friends–affects how Jim tells the story of his dinner date with the Wingfields. Betty’s own prejudices also surface when we hear her account of finally meeting her uncle, who had given a different impression of himself in his letters; and her comparisons of her uncle to Tom Wingfield reveal aspects of her character that lie beneath her well put-together, seemingly bubbly surface. The relationship dynamics here are fascinating to watch, and although the tone is largely comic, there’s a tragic aspect here, as we see how Jim responds to her teasing by telling her what she wants to hear. The play serves as not only a character study, but as an examination of social norms at the time, and of the concept of socially enforced conformity. 

The performances are strong, with Thomas getting to show a different side to this character he has already played in a different context, and Crump displaying a strong sense of presence and influence. Both performers work well together, displaying good comic timing and chemistry. The staging is simple and also excellent, as the action plays out on a minimal set (just a bench) on the same stage as The Glass Menagerie, which serves as an intriguing echo since we are now getting to see another look at one of that play’s memorable characters. It’s another memorable moment from the still relatively new, but always excellent, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. 

 

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The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Brian Hohlfeld
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
August 19, 2021

Brenda Currin, Bradley James Tejeda
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Glass Menagerie calls itself a “memory play”, and much of it is not-so-subtly based on the life of its playwright, Tennessee Williams. For their headline production this year, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has taken the “memory” aspect even further than usual. By incorporating a Central West End apartment building in which Williams once lived, and staging the play outside, director Brian Hohlfeld and the creative team, along with an excellent cast, are able to take advantage of the historic location to help set the tone and period atmosphere.

The overall tone is affected greatly by the setting, with Dunsi Dai’s superbly realized set providing the ideal backdrop for this haunting, emotional and evocative production. The lighting by Catherine Adams and sound by Kareem Deanes, along with detailed period-specific costumes by Michele Siler, are also exactly on-point, lending much to the storytelling. Every expression and word of dialogue is clear, as is the feeling of the St. Louis of days gone by. Atmospheric music that’s supposed to be emanating from records on the Victrola or wafting in from the (in-story) dance hall across the alley helps to maintain the overall heightened sense of longing and hoping for something better for this family consisting of faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield (Brenda Currin) and her adult children, the shy, socially awkward and physically challenged Laura (Elizabeth Teeter), and the restless writer Tom (Bradley James Tejeda), who wishes to focus more on his writing and explore the world beyond St. Louis and the drudgery of his job at a shoe factory. The story, which leads up to a fateful dinner with a much-anticipated “Gentleman Caller” named Jim (Chauncy Thomas), is told as a set of memories recounted by an older Tom, as he reflects on his family’s situation and everyone’s dealing with events of the past as well as hopes and fears for the future. 

The staging is adapted to the set especially well, with the outdoor setting and especially the real fire escapes working ideally for the story, and the performances are remarkable. Tejeda’s Tom is a constant presence even when he’s not on stage, and his perspective paints a vivid picture of the sense of growing longing and desperation among the various characters. The overall family dynamic is on clear display, from anger and resentment, to some genuinely affectionate moments, as Tom truly cares for the well-being of his sister and, occasionally, his mother. The family scenes are especially memorable, with outstanding performances from Currin as the regretful, sometimes overbearing Amanda, and Teeter as the wistful, painfully shy Laura, who struggles with her own insecurities and everyone else’s expectations for her. Thomas is also strong as the personable, cheerful Jim, who forms a believable connection with Teeter’s Laura in some of the most captivating scenes in the play. This is a highly emotional play, and all of the performers convey those emotions truthfully and with power. 

This play, when done well, is one of those shows that can stay with a person for a while after they’ve seen it, like a vivid, lingering memory. And this production at TFSTL is done remarkably well. Sitting out in the open space behind the Tennessee apartment building in the CWE, the audience is put into the world of The Glass Menagerie, and with this cast and that stunning set and production values, it’s a world well worth visiting.

Chauncy Thomas, Elizabeth Teeter
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is presenting The Glass Menagerie at The Tennessee until August 29, 2021

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Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis 2019
May 11, 2019

As I noted in my last review, this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival opened with a stunning production of The Night of the Iguana. As is usual, however, the main stage production is not the only thing the festival has to offer. Here are two other excellent shows from the festival:

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Kari Ely

Kelley Weber, Maggie Wininger, Julie Layton, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

A strong local cast and brisk staging are the highlights of this show, one of Williams’ later plays originally staged in 1979. Set in a Central West End apartment in the 1930s, this is a funny, poignant piece that features the common Williams theme of loneliness, but the tone is more comic than usual. In fact, it almost has a sitcom-like feel at times, which might be part of what lends to the theory (touted in the festival’s advertising) that this play was an inspiration for the 1980s comedy series The Golden Girls. On my viewing, I would say resemblances to that series are slight, and the play’s appeal rests more in its portrayal of its time, setting, and character situations, along with the very “St. Louis” vibe of the piece.

The story emphasizes class differences and individual aspirations as well as personal hopes and dreams, along with relationships among very different women who initially have wildly different goals. For Bodey (Kelley Weber), the middle-aged single daughter of German immigrants, her hope seems to revolve around picnics at Creve Coeur Lake and setting up her also single twin brother–the unseen but much talked-about Buddy–with Bodey’s younger, Southern-born high school teacher roommate Dorothea, or “Dottie” (Maggie Wininger). Dottie, however, has other plans that revolve largely around another unseen but much discussed character, her school’s principal, Ralph Ellis. As Bodey prepares food and tries to convince Dottie to go on an outing to the lake with her, Dottie is determined to stay home and wait for an expected phone call from Ralph, and both women are surprised at different times by two guests. First, there’s the social-climbing Helena (Julie Layton), who works with Dottie and hopes to get her to move into an expensive, more fashionable apartment with her. Then, there’s Miss Sophie Gluck (Ellie Schwetye), a German-born neighbor in the apartment building whose mother has recently died and who Bodey has been trying to console. As the story progresses, much is revealed about the motives of the various women, as well as the truth about the objects of their aspirations.

It’s a fast-moving, broadly comic piece with a clear undertone of melancholy, and the casting is excellent, from Weber’s determined, down-to-earth Bodey to Wininger’s dreamy and conflicted Dottie, to Layton’s haughty Helena. Schwetye, as the grieving, awkward Sophie, is a standout, with a memorable performance that is at equal turns poignant and broadly comic. The staging is fast-paced, with some impressive moments of physical comedy along with the strong characterizations.

The production values are also excellent, with a detailed and somewhat whimsical recreation of a 1930s St. Louis apartment by scenic designer Ali Strelchun, and excellent costumes by Garth Dunbar, lighting by David LaRose, and sound by Kareem Deanes. It’s a fun, compelling treat of a performance of a show that many viewers may not have heard of. It’s well worth checking out.

Tennessee Williams Festival is presenting A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur upstairs at the Grandel Theatre until May 19, 2019

“Dear Mr.Williams”
Written and Performed by Bryan Batt
Directed and Developed with Michael Wilson

Bryan Batt
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Also on stage this weekend was another show that ran for three performances. Dear Mr. Williams is a one-man show written and performed by Bryan Batt, who is probably best known for his role on the television show Mad Men. Here, Batt has collaborated with director Michael Wilson to present a highly personal show, portraying how Tennessee Williams and his plays have inspired Batt throughout his life.

This was a fascinating show, part dramatization and part autobiographical monologue, as Batt intersperses the story of his own life growing up in New Orleans with dramatized quotes from Williams about the city he also loved, as well as theatre, sexuality, and more. The story is poignant and personal, with Batt telling how his family’s history sometimes coincided with Williams’ plays, and also how he discovered Williams’ plays along with his journey into acting as well as coming to terms with his sexuality in the 1970s and early 1980s. Batt has a strong stage presence and personable manner, and his transitions between “Bryan” and “Tennessee” were, for the most part, seamless, although at times the transitions were so quick that they could be confusing. Still, this was an intriguing and fascinating portrayal.

Technical director and stage manager Michael B. Perkins also contributed to the simple but impressive staging, although Batt–and his portrayal of Williams–are front and center. It was a witty, poignant, and memorable performance, working well in the small but elegant space in the Curtain Call lounge. It’s another strong example of the variety and excellence on display at the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.

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The Night of the Iguana
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Tim Ocel
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
May 9, 2019

James Andrew Butz, Lavonne Byers, Harry Weber, Nisi Sturgis
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has made a lasting impression on the theatre scene here in four short years. Through its mainstage productions, other theatrical offerings, panel discussions and additonal events, the festival has established a strong presence. Last year’s mainstage show, A Streetcar Named Desire, proved to be a highlight of the entire St. Louis theatrical year. Now, the festival is following up last year’s success with a new, bold staging of Williams’ thought-provoking The Night of the Iguana, boasting a strong cast and especially stunning production values.

The stage of the Grandel Theatre has been strikingly transformed into a run-down hotel in Mexico by means of a spectacular set by Dunsi Dai and luminous lighting by Jon Ontiveros, along with meticulously detailed costumes by Garth Dunbar. The story focuses on common themes for Williams–loneliness, flawed people, and seemingly unattainable dreams. Here, the focus is on a disgraced former minister-turned-tour guide in the early years of World War II. Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (James Andrew Butz) is an alcoholic who left his last church job in disgrace after an inappropriate relationship with a very young Sunday school teacher. Now, he’s leading a tour group of young ladies from Texas on an excursion that is straying from the advertised route, to the great dismay of chaperone Judith Fellowes (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), who is especially upset about Shannon’s attentions toward one of her charges, the 16-year-old Charlotte Goodall (Summer Baer). There’s also the newly-widowed Maxine Faulk (Lavonne Byers), who owns the hotel and has designs on Shannon. Meanwhile, a group of German tourists (Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay, and Hannah Lee Eisenbath) meander about, gleefully singing and celebrating news from Europe (basically, bombings and perceived Nazi victories). Into this situation come traveling artists and hustlers in their own way Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis) and her grandfather or “Nonno”, elderly poet Jonathan Coffin (Harry Weber), who is dealing with memory loss and struggling to finish his last poem. As memorable as all the characters are, including a supporting ensemble that features Victor Mendez (as Pedro), Luis Aguilar (as Pancho), Spencer Sickmann (as Hank), and Greg Johnston (as Jake Latta), the key figures are Shannon, Maxine, Hannah, and Nonno, and the most gripping and compelling drama revolves around these characters. Questions raised include regret, lost dreams and aspirations, temptation vs. desire for redemption, loneliness, and more. It’s a deep, intense, and sometimes disturbing character study that explores how these characters play off of one another and what makes them who they are.

The atmosphere is stunningly realized by the production, and the theme and struggle of the characters is well-portrayed by the first-rate cast, led by the always excellent Butz as the troubled Shannon and the especially impressive Sturgis as Hannah, who imbues her character with a hopeful energy and a believable mid-century accent and excellent chemistry with Butz, along with a credible sense of a lived history and genuine bond with the also excellent Weber as the determined, ailing Nonno. Byers also turns in a memorable performance as the brash, possessive Maxine. The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well, with standouts including Townsend as assertive Judith, and Isom and Doggett as deceptively cheerful German tourists. It’s a cohesive cast all around, with everyone turning in a strong performance, supporting the truly remarkable leads.

The Night of the Iguana is a compelling evocation of time, place, and character, with characters who are notably flawed and struggle to maintain hope in the midst of a sense of looming menace, both internal and external. It’s a vividly staged, impeccably cast production. It ushers in the Fourth Annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis with remarkable energy and poignancy. It’s another stunning success from the Festival.

James Andrew Butz, Nisi Sturgis
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is presenting The Night of the Iguana at the Grandel Theatre until May 19, 2019

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