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The Power of Nuance

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"It is the responsibility of the writer to put his experience as a being into work that refines it and elevates it and that makes of it an essence that a wide audience can somehow manage to feel in themselves: 'this is true.'" The quote is from Tennessee Williams' introduction to Small Craft Warnings, which premiered off Broadway in New York in 1972. Clearly, Williams was worried about the reception awaiting his latest collection of tawdry characters -- the habitues of an unprepossessing beachfront bar in southern California.

In his great plays, Williams often stuns us by revealing a tenderly human sensibility at the heart of situations that seem, at first glance, hopelessly squalid. Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and the Princess in Sweet Bird of Youth are borderline hysterics, clinging to whatever crumbs of physical love they can get their hands on -- yet, there is in them a spirit, intact and inviolable, that we respond to. As a result, we not only feel in ourselves "this is true," but "this is significant." Significance is, I think, the unspoken worry behind Williams' apologia.

Fortunately, in Stacey Arton's production of Small Craft Warnings, currently on the boards of Le Chat Noir, we are able to confront this troubling issue head on -- for the characters are vividly and believably brought to life. In the company of a top-notch cast, we watch the imbroglios at Monk's Place, like fascinated flies on the wall.

Maggie Eldred gives us a memorable, somewhat volcanic Leona, the peripatetic, hard-drinking beautician at the center of the play. Sharing her trailer and her paycheck is tough-guy gigolo, Bill (Dane Rhodes), whose main claim to fame is an apparently monumental appendage affectionately known as "junior." Leona is the survivor in the small band of misfits that seeks safe harbor at Monk's Place. The owner and bartender, Monk (Bob Scully), like Leona, has a function in life -- and this modicum of responsibility seems to distinguish the saved from the damned on this particular stretch of coast.

Other regulars at the bar are a pathetic drunk of a doctor (Doug Mundy) and a lost soul named Violet (Veronica Russell), who pays her way in life by giving men hand-jobs. Quentin (Martin Covert), a jaded gay sophisticate, drops in with his latest pickup (Justin Scalise) and delivers a brilliant, caustic eulogy on homosexual love. Rusty Tennant and Eric Pollard complete the talented ensemble. David Raphael designed the evocative and graceful set.

Meanwhile, over at Rivertown Rep, director Gary Rucker has pulled off a similar trick with Larry Shoe's madcap comedy The Foreigner. The premise of this one is bizarre; a pathologically shy Englishman passes himself off as a foreigner from an unnamed, exotic country while staying at a guest house in a small town in Georgia. The characters in the play could easily decline into "funny types" and the complications into leaden-footed shtick.

Instead -- once again -- nuance saves the day. There are no weak links in this cast. Together and separately, they manage to find the kernel of truth in the most outlandish situations. Mike Mallory somehow makes us believe Charlie, the quintessential sad sack. And we enjoy the gradual flowering of his new, assertive personality. Amy Alvarez is excellent as the put-upon but eventually enamored Catherine, while Robert Richardson brings a finely tuned plausibility to the hypocritical Reverend Lee. H. G. Steltz's Owen Musser is as ominous as one could wish, and we take joy in his discomfiture. Julie Vorus' Betty is a ditzy, well-meaning soul. Greg DiLeo's Staff Sgt. Froggy LeSueur is a likable, take-charge kind of a bloke. Overseeing this production, director Rucker gives us a winning and forthright Ellard Simms.

What makes the play more than a broad comic contrivance is its mordant comment on the problem of appearance versus reality. This theme seeps in everywhere. We are told Charlie's poor wife is in the hospital, probably dying. We are dutifully sympathetic. But, we learn in the next breath that she has been cheating on him unmercifully. And so it goes.

First, in farcical fashion, Charlie pretends to be a "foreigner" who speaks a gibberish language. But then, we come to realize that much of what we had taken for granted in Georgia is also quite the opposite of what it appeared. In a sense, the masking of the central character permits him to unmask the hidden truth and to set things right. Finally, when the Invisible Empire of the Klan attacks the guest house, they are also defeated by a confusion of appearance and reality.

But, whatever its philosophical implications, The Foreigner -- from start to finish -- is quite preposterous and a great deal of fun.

Bar flies: Doug Mundy, Maggie Eldred, Dane Rhodes, Eric Pollard (background), Veronica Russell, Rusty Tennant, Bob Scully, Justin Scalise and Martin Covert in Small Craft Warnings.
  • Bar flies: Doug Mundy, Maggie Eldred, Dane Rhodes, Eric Pollard (background), Veronica Russell, Rusty Tennant, Bob Scully, Justin Scalise and Martin Covert in Small Craft Warnings.

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