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Daddy Dearest

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A Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams' breakthrough play, centers on two unforgettable women, the mother and the sister of the young poet narrator. The father ("a telephone man, who fell in love with long distances") is noticeably absent. Fathers occasionally do appear in Williams' world. There is the Reverend in Eccentricities of a Nightingale, who torments his daughter with unrelenting criticism. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's Big Daddy, of course, is a tough autocrat even while surprising us with a tenderness for his troubled son. But nowhere does one find "The Father" in the sense one feels one has met "The Mother" in Menagerie.

In A House Not Meant to Stand, recently given an excellent production at The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, Williams seems finally to have faced this long-absent demon. And this last of his produced plays curiously completes the family portrait he began with Menagerie.

When the lights come up, we see a messy living room, with pots set here and there to catch the leaks in the roof. There is a thunderstorm in progress.

"Entering this house in cloudburst ain't exactly like comin' in out of the rain!" complains Cornelius McCorkle to his wife, Bella. And we are off on a ride of crackling, often hilarious, dialogue that is right up there with Williams' best. The leaky roof, McCorkle, points out, could be fixed if only Bella would come across with "the money." And so we are plunged into the central conflict of the play: Cornelius' desperate, endlessly frustrated attempts to get his hands on "The Dancy money" -- a legendary wad of $1,000 bills hoarded by Stella's bootleg grandmother and (perhaps!) passed secretly on to Bella.

McCorkle is a piece of work. As tough and autocratic as Big Daddy, he lacks Big Daddy's drive -- as well as Big Daddy's capacity to love his child. The sourness of failure hangs about him. He is an unregenerate soul, who lounges on the sofa in his cardigan and suspenders, drinking beer and washing down Tylenol 3 (laced with codeine) to ease his excruciating back pains. But, for all his faults, he's a quick-witted old devil. Danny Bowen's faultless performance captures all the curdled charm and caustic humor of this mean-spirited, modern Falstaff. To pick one microscopic moment of perfection: the telephone rings, and McCorkle, sitting nearby, lets it ring, hoping someone else will answer. No one does. He reaches over as far as he can without moving. His hand is perhaps an inch from the phone. That's as much as he's going to do! He shouts to the empty room, "Somebody get the phone!" It keeps ringing. "Oh f--k it!" he says, finally, gets up and answers. God -- as director Aimée Michel clearly knows -- is in the details.

Bella (a subtle and compelling Shelley Poncy) is McCorkle's wife in what you might call an adversarial marriage. Her dangerously high blood pressure has weakened her body and clouded her mind. McCorkle, she tells us, drove off their three children: the ne'er-do-well Charlie (Michael Salinas); Joanie, who became a prostitute; and Chip, a homosexual who's just died of chronic alcoholism. Charlie has returned home, having lost yet another job. He's brought with him a young girl (Jessica Podewell), who is pregnant and whom he intends to marry.

Completing this corner of Pascagoula are the neighbors: Jessica Sykes (Clare Moncrief) who spent her inheritance on cosmetic surgery, and her husband, Emerson Sykes (Gavin Mahlie), who is McCorkle's lodge brother and longtime friend.

A House Not Meant to Stand has none of the abstract quality of Williams' "experimental" plays. It marks a return to an earlier, more robust sense of the real world. But there is some freshness in the approach, particularly in the use of soliloquies and asides -- for which the "in-the-round" staging was particularly apt.

While it is often funny and sometimes moving, the play does not quite cohere dramatically. One feels all the pieces are there, and that, had Williams lived, he would have found a way to tell a more focused and satisfying story with them. Perhaps the problem is that there is no one who can really stand up to McCorkle. His son is too weak, his wife too damaged. And so, McCorkle -- for all his ranting and raving -- leaves without ever having had a decisive moment, a moment like Big Daddy has with Brick.

But, if it's not a masterpiece, neither is it a mere, unfinished fragment. It's a fascinating, flawed drama with at least one great role. A House Not Meant to Stand returns (with some recasting, I'm told) as part of the Tennessee Williams Festival this fall. Any fan of Williams will want to see it.

Cornelius McCorkle (Danny Bowen) confronts his - erstwhile son, Charlie (Michael Salinas) and his - son's pregnant girlfriend (Jessica Podewell) in the - recent mounting of Tennessee Williams' A - House Not Meant to Stand.
  • Cornelius McCorkle (Danny Bowen) confronts his erstwhile son, Charlie (Michael Salinas) and his son's pregnant girlfriend (Jessica Podewell) in the recent mounting of Tennessee Williams' A House Not Meant to Stand.

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