A cold one

Pub date February 11, 2009
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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Tennessee Williams was notoriously afraid of going insane — the fate of his sister Rose, a presence haunting several of his greatest plays — and in the latter half of his career, the great American dramatist wrestled mightily with a slump in his fortunes, depression, and addictions to pills and alcohol. It was the pills that finally got him, or rather the packaging: he choked to death on a bottle cap in his New York City hotel room in 1983.

This darkness in Williams’ life is well-covered ground but no doubt still fertile enough for a biographically based flight of poetic imagination, ruminating on the relationship between madness and creativity, which is what Bay Area playwright Joe Besecker proposes in New Conservatory Theatre’s revival of 1984’s popular and long-running Tennessee in the Summer. And yet Besecker, who has 25 plays to his credit including the 2008 SF Fringe Festival offering Loving Fathers, freights his poetical device with so much expository baggage that here at least, in director Christopher Jenkins’ able but somewhat miscast production, it never leaves the runway. It’s strange. Considering how flushed and feverish Williams’ plays could be, you’d expect a little perspiration to break out somewhere in Tennessee in the Summer.

The play opens, reliably enough, on a sweltering summer morning in N.Y.C. in 1972. Immediately recognizable at a desk in a dim, heavily wallpapered hotel room — handily rendered with a hint of disrepair by Michael Fink — is the aging playwright (Dale Albright), bespectacled and freshly groomed. He’s rewriting a would-be comeback and critical misfire, Out Cry. As he taps away at his typewriter, an overheated, restless woman (Alex Alexander) pecks at him from across the room, chiding him for his efforts, accusing him of wasting his time, of already being thoroughly washed up. He is testy in his responses — "Christ, I just refuse to become a total has-been in my own lifetime" — and downright ferocious the moment she lays a hand on his shoulder. "Don’t touch me!" he roars at her, with a glint of fear.

When, a moment later, the mysterious woman leans out the window and invites a sidewalk stud up for a visit, she proceeds to introduce herself to him as Tennessee Williams, a fact the young man (Jeremy Forbing) immediately accepts and admits to already knowing. Thus, we realize — if we hadn’t guessed already — that we’re in the presence of the writer and his better half: his own female side, that is, or anima, if you will, splayed on the nearby bed in something like standard attire for a Williams heroine — a white slip and a mint julep accent.

Time tripping ensues, as Tennessee-times-two relives scenes from his life, including encounters with sister Rose (Annamarie Macleod, doing decent work here but plodding along in caricature in the part of Edwina, Williams’ mother) and longtime and long-suffering companion Frank Merlo (Forbing, seemingly elsewhere and unconvincing in this crucial role), whose death in 1961 tosses the drug- and booze-addled Williams into a monumental depression.

At the center of the play, Albright and Alexander share a certain gruff but vaguely mechanical connection. Albright’s playwright is dyspeptic, morose, and callously lascivious, without much redeeming allure let alone a sense of talent. Alexander’s anima is fairly solid but limited in vacilutf8g between shrill complaint, self-pampering, and wilting empathy. Then again, they’re saddled with a fatiguing amount of exposition dressed roughly as dialogue, with only a thin sugaring of wit and charm. The work bluntly states as much as it dramatizes: "I need a companion at night," says Tennessee, "I fear death." And later: "I’m suffering from the affliction of loneliness." Or Frank to TW: "I’m sorry, Tom — I’m in the terminal stages of lung cancer …" Etc., etc. If the playwright had traveled a little lighter, there might have been room for more beyond the obvious and pedestrian. Rose’s last appearance reaches in this direction, as late in the game as it is. As is, the graceful arc the play would trace back to some reconciliation, some consolidation of halves and acceptance of self, is a surprisingly frigid ride.


Through March 1

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; $22–$40

New Conservatory Theatre Center

25 Van Ness, SF

(415) 861-8972