Struggling with the "Iguana"

Publication Date: Friday Jan 23, 1998

Struggling with the "Iguana"

TheatreWorks succeeds where it can, but can't overcome the difficulties of Tennessee Williams' "Night of the Iguana"

by Betsy M. Hunton

TheatreWorks' current production of what is often called Tennessee Williams' last great play, "The Night of the Iguana," is a beautifully staged piece of work. Andrea Bechert's set is a realistic portrayal of an isolated, run-down hotel nestled among dying palm trees on the west coast of Mexico in 1940.

During the course of the two acts, Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting traces the changes from daytime through a storm and into the peace of late night with meticulous detail, flawlessly supported by Don Dally's sound design and original music.

Against this background, James Carpenter plays an alcoholic, marginally sane, emotionally exhausted wreck, an ordained Episcopalian priest locked out of his church for "fornication and heresy." For this agonized man, God is a "senile delinquent" whom he calls "his oblivious majesty."

The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, desperately proud of the fact that he was "locked out" and not "defrocked" from the church, has been reduced to work as a tour guide for shabbier and shabbier travel agencies and is now losing what he knows is his last chance.

He's now ferrying a busload of Texas Baptist school teachers and has made an impulsive stop at the hotel in the desperate hope that the owners, his old friends Fred and Maxine, can somehow paste him together. But Fred has died and the lusty Maxine (Molly Mayock) wants far more from him than he can give.

Terry McMahon's portrayal of the 40ish spinster Hannah Jelkes is one of the strengths of the production. Hannah is a sketch artist who, with her poet-philosopher grandfather "Nonno," gently con their way about the world, exchanging their talents for room and board.

In Hannah, McMahon creates a character whose crisp sanity and clear knowledge of who she is and what she believes in plays beautifully against the fragmented Shannon's bewildered surges of thought. In their long conversation during the calming of the night after the storm, Hannah's self-possession is a convincing and marvelous achievement.

San Rafael actor Roger Larson's generally fine performance as the "97-years-young" Nonno is even more impressive when one learns that he assumed the role when Palo Alto actor Gerald Hiken was abruptly hospitalized on Tuesday before Saturday's opening.

There are some instances in this production in which minor roles are inadequately portrayed, but in the very odd matter of the four Nazi tourists, (Erick C. Konczyk, Lara Hope Owen, Gary Voss and Julia Kapp) the actors are just fine--it's the playwright's judgment that is questionable. Many critics, indeed, have suggested that these happy fascist roles should be eliminated as pointless irritants serving no purpose at all in the play.

The quartet bounces through their boisterous appearances on stage with a nerve-destroying vigor reminiscent of the screeching children who dash in and out of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." It seems possible that Williams was attempting something of the same effect in "Iguana" that worked so well in "Cat," a bizarre kind of Greek Chorus in which a totally different reality is suddenly thrust against the action on stage.

Whatever. It doesn't seem to work.

And that's a complaint that can be made about many parts of the play itself. Although "Iguana" won Williams his fourth Drama Critics Award in 1961, he was already deeply into the drug and alcohol abuse that coincided with the decline of his work's genius. Some may argue that "Iguana" already shows his deterioration.

The very symbol of the iguana itself is heavy handed. The lizard is tied up to be butchered and used for food. Hannah pleads with Shannon to free him, and both man and beast are freed at the same time. Get it?

But much of the language is beautiful and there is reason to care about these people.

Williams wrote prolifically during the next 20 years, more than 60 plays as well as poetry, essays and short stories. But his stature as America's greatest playwright next to Eugene O'Neill depends upon those brilliant gifts he gave us at the beginning--"Glass Menagerie," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and, lots of people say, "Summer and Smoke" and "Night of the Iguana."

Williams died February 24, 1983, at the age of 72. He choked to death on a barbituate overcap he had used like a spoon to swallow two Seconal capsules.

What: TheatreWorks presents "The Night of the Iguana;" directed by Ken Kelleher

When: Through Feb. 1; performances take place Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturday matinee, Jan. 24 only, at 2 p.m.; Sundays, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m., Feb. 1 at 2 p.m.

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View

How much: $23-31 regular ($18 preview); $18 youth and senior discount price (not available Friday and Saturday nights)

Information: Call 903-6000 

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