Any staging of a play is in theory an empty canvas, with the director and actors free to forge new ground in interpreting the script. But with any well-tried material, it's hard to escape the pull of storied productions. Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, leave a residue of their indelible performances on everyone who follows.
Not so with the virgin territory of the one-acts plays in Tennessee in the Quarter, directed by Perry Martin at Southern Rep as part of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Four of the five are world premieres, and the director and cast are faced with the opposite problem. Free from expectations, they also can't learn from others' mistakes. In attempting to make this untested material stage worthy, Martin and the cast make choices not inherent in the scripts. Some work better than others, and in fairness to the production, it's possible that there are no perfect theatrical solutions to these plays. That, after all, is probably why they haven't been seen until now.
Not that there are any catastrophic missteps here. Overall, the production is an enjoyable evening. The two-and-a-half-hour performance sped by, thanks in large measure to the one-acts' variety. "Escape" is set in the bunkhouse of a chain-gang; "Thank You, Kind Spirit" depicts a spiritualist meeting in the French Quarter; "Interior: Panic" is an early version of Streetcar; "Mister Paradise" is a scene between an unknown poet and a young fan bent on reviving his reputation; and "And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens" portrays a transvestite looking for love in one particularly wrong place. The unit set designed by Chad Talkington serves the disparate settings relatively well and costumes by Trish McLain lend polish. The production marches forward in time, with each play set in a different era, and well-chosen music smoothes the transitions.
The shortest play of the evening, "Escape," on paper, reads almost like an exercise, but actors Fred Plunkett, Jamal Dennis and Tony Molina create a fairly taut dramatic scene. As the play unfolds, a fellow inmate is attempting to escape and the three watch and listen to discern his fate. Their fear over what will befall him gets channeled into the tension between the three of them, leading up to a moving ending well played by the cast.
In "Thank You, Kind Spirit," Troi Bechet's spiritualist Mother Duclos is a plucky show-woman, proffering entertainment and hope to a desperate audience. They're eager to buy what she's selling -- assurance that the wayward husband will return, the illness will subside. While Bechet's performance is strong, she doesn't bring quite enough gusto to make this approach to the character work -- in other words, to seduce a roomful of people with her act. And without her as a riveting focal point, the play's energy feels dispersed.
"Interior: Panic" is seen from the point of view of Blanche (Susan Deily-Swearingen, a late cast addition), and director Martin effectively delineates her movements in and out of delusion. One particularly successful choice has Jack (the precursor to Stanley, and played by Dane Rhodes) give physical presence to what in the script is a disembodied voice inside Blanche's head. Deily-Swearingen's portrayal of Blanche's departure into carnal abandon arouses fascination and sympathy and elevates the character beyond what Williams gives us in this early draft.
"Mister Paradise" boasts great monologues for both the title character (Dane Rhodes) and the "Girl" (Leah Loftin). Both actors do them justice, although Rhodes dives into Williams' poetic language almost too deeply; his pauses between sentences are so long that one worries he may be drowning in there. Perhaps because the monologues are so compelling on the page, Martin showcases each actor individually. Rhodes is in shadow while Loftin lends her speech the charming insensitivity of naive youth. She in turn sits with her back to us while Rhodes takes the spotlight. While it's a nice thought to let each actor shine, this choice makes the play feel precisely like two monologues instead of a dramatic interaction.
In the evening's finale, Andy English imbues drag queen Candy Delaney with such charisma that even when she goes stubbornly against type, acting the dumb blonde in her attentions to violent Karl (Lucas Harms), it's impossible not to like her -- a feat English's counterpart in the New York production didn't pull off. Karl's Jekyll-and-Hyde act, a deliberate choice that has him display moments of tenderness, would seem to make Candy's attachment more fathomable. But it's not clear if Karl is just fattening Candy up for the kill or recoiling at his genuine affection for her. The most compelling moments are between Candy and her gay friends, who enact what in this production seem to be little dramas they consciously play out, rather than real conflicts. The ending is movingly realized, providing an affecting counterpoint to the play's title. English's Candy is a study in resilience, and he and Deily-Swearingen's Blanche are the evening's resurgent heroines, luminous in their imperfections in the best Williams way.