LORD BYRON'S LOVE LETTER by Tennessee Williams; directed by Akim Nowak; set by Akim Nowak and Mark Rigsby; costumes by Mark Rigsby. With Isabel-Lee Malone, Patti Chambers, Ann Todaro and Mark Fisher. AUTO-DA-FE by Tennessee Williams; directed by Christopher Henley; with Mary Stetina and Brian Hemmingsen. At d.c. space.
Parasols, candelabras, curtains, feathers, lace, a stuffed canary in a wicker cage, a southern belle in a sequined blouse, a mysterious old lady . . .
What can it all mean? It can only mean the start of a play by Tennessee Williams, and those who view that prospect with enthusiasm should take care to catch at least the first half of the double bill that opened Tuesday night at d.c. space. "Lord Byron's Love Letter" is one of Williams' tidiest and most enthralling one-act plays -- a kind of Gothic romance in miniature -- and this company not only hits the right notes but makes them echo through the theater like church bells.
To the extent that anything is clear about the play, it appears to be set in New Orleans, during Mardi Gras, early in the century. The two ladies have posted a sign outside their house, advertising their possession of a letter from Lord Bryon. A carousing couple comes to have a look-see, and is treated to readings from the diary of their younger hostess' grandmother -- who met Byron, we are told, on the steps of the Acropolis during the last years of his life. While the granddaughter reads, the old lady provides an eery running commentary from behind a screen -- informing us more than once, for example, that Byron "gave his life in defense of the universal cause of freedom."
Patti Chambers, as the granddaughter, carries the production with her wistful, melodic recitations, and Isabel-Lee Malone plays the old lady to the heavy-breathing hilt. Like all of Williams' better work, "Lord Byron's Love Letter" was written in verse -- or something close to it -- and under Akim Nowak's direction, this cast has the Williams rhythm down pat. The play walks the line between the sublime and the ridiculous, and so, very properly, does the production.
"Auto-Da-Fe," also written in the early '40s, is a case study of the one-act play gone wrong. Its slender structure can't nearly accommodate all the melodrama packed into it, and the final hullabaloo between a son played by Brian Hemmingsen and a mother played by Mary Stetina is entirely absurd. Beyond that, the less said, the better.