Concurrent with Arena Stage's "A Streetcar Named Desire," Baltimore's Center Stage is presenting "The Night of the Iguana," the 1962 drama which became the most recent of Tennessee William's major prize winners. To see the capable, if imperfect, stagings of these two plays within a brief time is to locate a turning in Williams' writing foreshadowing the decline which followed.
For "Iguana's" heroine. Hannah Jelks, is one of his most endearing creations, an aware spinster who roams resort hotels with Nonno, her grandfather, "97 years young and . . . the oldest living and practicing poet." From his readings and her painting and sketchings, they eke out a living.
It is 1940 and they have come to a sleazy Mexican resort hotel run by the recently widowed Maxine. A defrocked Episcopal minister, who earns his living escorting cheap tours around the country, has just raped the youngest girl in the tour party. When, inevitably, he loses his job, carthy Maxine asks him to stay on to replace her husband as manager and bed partner.
The conflict lies with the Rev. Mr. Shannon, who all his life has been torn between the spiritual and the physical. Almost silently, Shannon and Hannah understand one another. And after Nonno's death, Hannah, symbolically completing a poem begun years earlier, realizes that Shannon will choose Maxine's way out. Hannah is an idealized woman, aware of all, forgiving all, a pastel alongside the crude broad sketch of Maxine. Offered Hannah in the first production, Bette Davis turned it down as "dull," in favor of the "direct, uncomplicated" Maxine.
Still, in the original, Margaret Leighton made memorable Hannah, a vibrant ghost, and, at Center, Stage, Meg Wynn Owen (Hazel of TV's "Upstairs, Downstairs") also wholly involves us with that gentlewoman's steel spirit. Neither she nor we find Hannah dull.Her lonely spirit has exotic perceptions.
Instead of pursuing the world's Hannah's, Williams subsequently has been beguiled by the Maxines and Shannons, more broadly neurotic, already surrendered, wallowing in their passions. They have become monsters - or carbon copies.
The lyricism remains. In "Iguana" the incipient decay is perceptible but might have been reversed. Had 1953's "Camino Real" been more awarely received, would the canvas have been larger than "Vieux Carre," Small Craft Warnings" and "The Red Devil Battery Sign"?
At all events, Owen is admirable and Randall Duk Kim, recently Walt Whitman at the Kennedy Center, is splendid as Nonno. There is, no Nono's poem, a characteristic Williams touch. Williams contributed 200 poems to Harper's magazine and only one was refused publication. Williams has Hannan sending this one to Harper's.
Paul Collins and Janet Sarno play Shannon and Maxine, heading a capableproduction, though I did regret director Edward Berkeley's hyped-up image of Maxine stradding Shannon.
Such directorial overemphasis I also regretted in Arena's "Streetcar," Commenting on my reaction against the reiterated gunshots in his staging, which climaxed with the sailor's being killed in the street while Stanley rapes Blanche in the bedroom, direction Warshall W. Mason sends me copies of both Williams' own directions and Elia Kazan's acting edition. Both directions, however, refer to "a struggle," not to a gunshot, not to a murder.
My objection was to the gunshots and the prominence of the action. The originally was for a proscenium stage where less important action became part of the background. In central staging the subsidiary action is close to the audience, thus putting us at a remove from the rape scene's sting. Too much is too much. Williams' directors seem to prefer his violence to the lyrical outpourings he creates for souls who are too inarticulate to voice them for themselves.