There is much speculation about the value of the late plays of Tennessee Williams. For instance, Outcry seems to push the boundaries of what a play can be. As a spectator, you either push your boundaries as well, or you reject the experience.
These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch, one of the offerings at the recent Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, provided an interesting perspective on that debate. Stairs (written in 1948) is an early one-act, but it raises the same questions as Outcry. Watching it, one is forced to realize that Williams has been raising those questions since the beginning. However, now that Williams is enshrined in the pantheon of great literature, we accept his early radicalism. His innovations seem almost inevitable. Is Stairs a play? Does this series of events -- or of conversations between characters -- constitute a drama?
At the festival, Stairs was presented as a staged reading, directed by David Hoover, in the ballroom of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel (a location made famous by the Quadroon Balls, where belles of color were courted by socially prominent white beaux).
Appropriately enough, courtship is one of the themes of Stairs, but the drama takes place in the 1940s. Courtship has come a long way from lace, perfume and Bordeaux wines of an excellent vintage. The Joy Rio movie theater, where Stairs takes place, is a decrepit old edifice used by a questionable clientele for clandestine sexual encounters. Young and old, gay and straight, they sneak up the stairs of the title to have their trysts in the dangerous, crumbling balcony. Decay is both an architectural and a moral leitmotif. As always, Williams has an ambiguous attitude toward decay. He is both drawn to it and disturbed by it, but he is not repulsed by it. In refuge, he senses a refuge, a chance for freedom. Hypocrisy and rigidity are what he truly fears.
In any case, we watch Carl (Mike Harkins), a longtime usher, teaching Boy (Dwayne Sepcich), a new hire, the ropes. Off stage, we hear bits of dialogue from a Hollywood melodrama. Meanwhile, Gladys (Mandi Turner), a rebellious young thing, sneaks up to the balcony to meet her friend. She tries to entice Boy to come up and have some "fun." Others wandering in this miasma are Mr. Kroger (Steve Lawson), the cranky, corrupt manager of the theater and Woman (veteran TV and stage actress Stephanie Zimbalist), who is the cashier and a loyal defender of Kroger.
Now, in fairness, a lot of stuff happens. Carl tells Kroger what he thinks of him. In fact, he calls him a morphodite! Finally, Carl not only quits, but he strips off his uniform and burns it -- nearly burning down the theater as well. Police are called. Carl is arrested. And, of course, there is the "fun" that Boy presumably has upstairs with Girl in the balcony. That's a hefty scramble of activity, but it's not quite a plot. The feeling of the piece remains oddly amorphous and the language is resolutely not lyrical. Stairs is like a discarded sketch by a master. Would it be of interest, one wonders, if it were not signed by such an illustrious name? Many of Williams' great plays began as character studies in a small form, like the one-act play. Stairs is in that tradition, but it seems like the character study of a place rather than a person.
I've taken a lengthy look at Stairs not because the other dramatic offerings were unworthy, but because -- in this first post-Katrina festival -- Stairs was the only sample of Williams' actual work on display. The two other featured offerings were about Williams and used his words, but they did not give us his artistic vision.
Actor Richard Thomas performed Blanche and Beyond, adapted by Steve Lawson from Williams' letters. Writer-director Lawson brought an adaptation of earlier letters here in 2002. In Blanche, we watch Tom Williams become "Tennessee," as he struggles with "the catastrophe of success." Thomas (a stage veteran most famous for his John-Boy on TV's The Waltons) did not quite portray Williams, but he gave a hint of the Tennessee flavor. Jeremy Lawrence, on the other hand, in his one-man show, Talking Tennessee, spoke to us as though he were the playwright himself. Lawrence charmed us with his poised, deceptively casual manner.
For something completely different, we had Ignatius On Stage, Kenneth Holditch's ever-popular adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Perry Martin directed a buoyant staged reading that starred John "Spud" McConnell, among others. Dunces was a refreshing change. Williams is the best of company and an inspiration, but how delightful to enter the world of another illustrious local man-of-letters!
- Steve Lawson (left) created Blanche and Beyond Ñ recently presented at the Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans Literary Festival Ñ from WilliamsÕ letters, with Richard Thomas (right) starring as the playwright.