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A LION IN WINTER

Over the weekend, I was in Boston and took a T train to Cambridge to go to the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, where I have had the pleasure to see some terrific plays over the years, and Friday night was no exception. My interest was aroused when a few months ago it was announced that Tennessee Williams’s 1961 drama The Night of the Iguana was being revived there, and that none other than James Earl Jones had signed on for the small, but significant role of the 97-year-old poet, Nonno.

Amanda Plummer and James Earl Jones in The Night of the Iguana at ART.

This is the actor who will always be something of a talisman for me ever since I saw him star in the first play I saw on Broadway, Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer and Tony winning drama The Great White Hope. Since I knew that I had to be in Boston the last weekend in February, buying a single ticket ahead of time was a no-brainer. How could I resist one more chance to see this now legendary actor in one more play? It would bring the total I have seen him in over the last half-century to an even dozen.

Who is Nonno and what is The Night of the Iguana? To begin with the second question first, the play is the last one from Tennessee Williams where the majority of critics’ agreed it had merit. In fact, it won that year’s New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the fourth and final time for any of Williams’s dramas. When it premiered in 1961, Williams had already begun his decline into alcoholism and drug addiction, that rendered his thinking muddled. Yes, he would still retain the poetry deep in his soul, but as described in John Lahr’s recent biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, the functionality of Williams’s ability to cogently address the issues that come up when a play needs rewriting in rehearsal was rapidly dissipating. Lahr quotes Williams’s letter to Charles Bowden, the producer of Iguana, which stated: “My scripts at this stage are a shambles of inconsistencies, repeats, contradictions, because of my methodless method of work, my not reading over yesterday’s work, just going on, on, like a madman, spook chased by spook.” This is especially disconcerting as the chasing of a spook is at the center of the two of the play’s main characters’ dilemmas. Williams, much as he did all his creative life, used his own tragedies to fill out those of his characters. When he succeeded such as with Blanche in Streetcar or Serafina in The Rose Tattoo, as just two examples, the results were clear and stunningly realized. When they were clouded and vague, the works rambled and never achieved the kind of lift off necessary for engagement with an audience.

Dana Delaney as Maxine and Bill Heck as Shannon.

In spite of Iguana’s colorful setting and characters, that sort of lift off is only achieved intermittently. But to be spirited away by Tennessee Williams even when not at the peak of his powers, still has the potential for transcendency. And there were a few of those moments I enjoyed while watching Night of the Iguana Friday evening. Some were from Bill Heck’s performance as the main character, the defrocked priest Lawrence Shannon and some from Dana Delaney as the blousy Maxine Faulk, even though both were somewhat miscast. Each appeared too healthy and in far too good a physical condition for the amount of booze and debilitating life choices their characters are supposed to have engaged in for years. More on the money was Amanda Plummer in the role of Hannah Jelks, a role for which Margaret Leighton won a Best Actress Tony in the original production. It’s a great part, one written for Katharine Hepburn after Williams got to know her when she was cast in the film based on his one-act play, Suddenly Last Summer, released in 1959. Hepburn toyed with playing it, but her demands of just a six-month run on Broadway left the producer no choice but to look for someone else. The only other Iguana Iguana production I have seen on stage prior to this one was in 1978 and starred the luminescent film actress Dorothy McGuire as Hannah. At the time she was sixty, and hadn’t been on a New York stage in almost twenty years. She seemed tentative and frail, which is only a part of the complexities one should convey as Hannah. At ART, Ms. Plummer, who once gave a mesmerizing Tony winning performance as the tortured title character of John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God some thirty-five years ago (this month, in fact), was something of a revelation here as Hannah. I haven’t been much a fan of the eccentric portrayals she has given in film and on television over the years, but here she projected a core strength and a sly hucksterism that felt just right.

But the lion’s share of praise must be preserved for that old lion himself, James Earl Jones as Nonno: the ailing nonagenarian, described by Williams as “a minor league poet with a major league spirit.” Dressed in an ill-fitting, tattered and stained linen suit, Jones is wheeled onto the stage early in the evening. Brilliantly fitted with a wig identical to the way Frederick Douglas sported his mane, the leonine hairstyle befits a man for whom a haircut would be of no importance. Since there is little movement for the actor, his voice is all there is. And what a voice; one of the most recognized in the American theatre. And to have this part, one that the eighty-six year old may claim as his last (one hopes not, at least), is one that he has aged into playing with all the grace and dignity that is possible. Nonno has been working on finishing a poem, according to his daughter, for the last few years. And his method of composing is to speak the poem aloud, repeating the phrases until he finds the last ones which will complete it. His poem about oranges falling from a tree is richly poetic and when he does achieve its completion, naturally his life is completed. It’s not for nothing, if you know Williams’s playwriting history both before and after Iguana, the poem brings added weight to the play’s finish and the slow fade of the lights makes for a very moving ending. For me, it is perfection.

Praise must be given to this production for Michael Wilson’s sensitive direction and the beautiful set by the Tony winning designer Derek McLane, illuminative costumes by the Tony winner Catherine Zuber, and the evocative lighting by David Lander.

Derek McLane’s stunning set for The Night of the Iguana at ART.

“In the twenty-two years of life that remained to Williams, he would have seven more Broadway openings, but Iguana would be his last hit,” writes John Lahr in his biography. It was a sad decline and, as one who sat through the original productions of A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur in 1979 and Clothes for a Summer Hotel in 1980, it was a fall from grace that was difficult to watch. But since his greatest works will always remain in the repertoire for as long as there are theatre companies in operation, so there will always be productions of the plays of Tennessee Williams.

Williams, drink in hand, contemplative and seemingly at ease. His was not an easy life.

The Night of the Iguana runs through March 18th at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. If you’re anywhere nearby, get tickets in advance and make the trip. At the very least, you will be seeing one of the masters of the stage give a master class in acting, all from a seated position a wheelchair, his talent neither depreciated by by wit, by distinction or by time. All hail James Earl Jones — a lion in winter.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing. https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats

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