Preview: Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival at Georgetown University

A playwright of prodigious gifts deserves a festival of many moving parts, and that kind of complex machinery is exactly what Georgetown University has set in motion to honor the 100th birthday of one of the late, great laureates of the American stage, Tennessee Williams.

“We didn’t set out to do the biggest thing ever,” explains Derek Goldman, the festival’s artistic director and an associate professor of theater and performance studies. “But we’re trying to touch on all the aspects of Williams in one way or another that made him singular.”

As a result, the Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival — performances and talks that have taken over the theaters, lecture halls and libraries — is a wide-ranging exploration of a dramatist whose works survey a poetic American landscape of wounded souls. The participants include such luminaries as Edward Albee, Christopher Durang and John Waters. Although some events in the festival have already begun, Albee opens the central birthday weekend of the event Thursday night with a keynote conversation about the playwright, while Waters closes it Sunday with his own solo work, “This Filthy World.”

The extravaganza easily qualifies as the most ambitious consideration of a playwright ever undertaken by Georgetown, which in recent years has established itself as the region’s most imaginative academic outpost for drama. “I feel like it’s special and idiosyncratic enough to be for Williams lovers, and large and informative enough for a campus that might not know who the guy is,” Goldman says.

Comprehensive treatments of writers for the stage are all the rage in Washington at the moment: Arena Stage is in the midst of a large-scale examination of Albee’s work, built around a sterling revival of his “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” At the same time, Studio Theatre has embarked, with the excellent Druid Theatre production of “Penelope,” on a major presentation of the plays of Irish dramatist Enda Walsh.

Gaining playgoers’ attention in this festival glut is by no means a cinch. But organizers of the Williams Centennial Festival are hoping that the unusual variety of material that has been assembled will illuminate the playwright — who was born a century ago Saturday — in ways that a more conventional festival cannot.

The plays to be performed encompass familiar titles in full stagings (“The Glass Menagerie,” featuring Sarah Marshall) as well as experimental works inspired by Williams’s life and art, such as “The Really Big Once,” by the adventurous New York troupe Target Margin. The bill will be filled out with rarely seen one-acts (“I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow”), biographical portraits of the writer (Doug Tompos’s “Bent to the Flame”) and readings of works such as “Camino Real,” an expressionistic Williams play that flopped on Broadway in 1953.

Kathleen Chalfant, best known for her roles in the original productions of the Pulitzer-winning “Angels in America” and “Wit,” is among the actors recruited for the readings. She is drawn to some of the offbeat pieces that at first failed or over the years have been rescued from Williams’s archives. “I love those strange, later, often unsuccessful plays, for the courage of them,” she says. “Both the stylistic and emotional courage of them. He took every chance there ever was.”

The effort to broaden an understanding of the way in which Williams’s life was mirrored so profoundly in his art is the focus of the festival’s centerpiece event, “The Glass Menagerie Project.” The play, directed by Goldman, is being supplemented by a series of devised readings, culled from Williams’s archives: “Elegy for Rose” explores his deep devotion for his sister of that name, the model for “Menagerie’s” introverted Laura. And “The Menagerie Variations” resurrects fragments of “Menagerie” that the playwright cut from the drama or used in other pieces, such as the unproduced screenplay “The Gentleman Caller.”

“Most of this material has never been read, except by a few scholars,” Goldman says, adding that the cuts cover scenes Williams wrote for virtually every external event referred to in the play, including one in the business school to which Laura is sent by her overbearing mother, Amanda. Another discarded piece is especially poignant, given the haunting ending Williams settled on. In this version, Goldman says, “he’s trying to write Laura a happy ending.”

The attempt to divine Williams’s personal stake in his storytelling extends in this festival to projects conducted by Georgetown students. Courtney Ulrich, a senior majoring in theater and performance studies, not only serves as Goldman’s assistant director on “Menagerie,” but she has also created an art installation based on a Williams essay, “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair.”

“It’s about him living away from home for a long time. Then his mother writes a letter saying your grandmother is sick and he comes home,” Ulrich says. “It was so visually rich that I could see the entire scene unfolding before me.”

What Ulrich has created, in effect, is a reflection of the essay in three dimensions. Visitors to her installation, in the lobby of Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center, can sit in the “overstuffed chair” and listen to a 41 / 2-minute “audioscape,” with actors supplying the voices of Williams and others. “There are sensors in the chair that activate the entire experience,” she says.

The convergence of biography and literature will be evident as well in Target Margin’s “The Really Big Once,” which takes as its inspiration the collaboration of Williams and director Elia Kazan on that ill-fated Broadway production of “Camino Real.” Like “Camino” itself, “The Really Big Once” breaks entirely with traditional forms.

“It was an experimental adventure,” David Herskovits, Target Margin’s artistic director, says of “Camino.” “I wanted to write something that’s dreamlike and free and wild, something that’s coursing under his plays all the time.”

Students like Ulrich — who developed a deep affection for Williams after taking a course last fall that focused entirely on him — say the emotional tapestry and literary complexity of his plays have hooked them. “I think that what drew me in was the way he so kind of unashamedly threw everything he was feeling into his work,” she says. “I really did fall in love with him and his work, and I became absolutely committed to spending the rest of my year devoted to him.”

Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival

birthday weekend events run Thursday through Sunday at Georgetown University. For information on free and ticketed events, call 202-687-2787 or visit performingarts.georgetown.edu/tenncentfest.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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