Bad Chemistry 

Actors Ensemble does little justice to seldom-seen Tennessee Williams gem.

Night of the Iguana is one of Tennessee Williams' more tender dramas. Of course, tenderness is relative for Williams, and the 1961 play nonetheless deals with madness, alcoholism, and transgressive sexuality. Wisecracking, disgraced Episcopalian minister T.L. Shannon has left his church to seek evidence of God on "five of the six continents," a search subsidized by leading tour groups. He'd be more successful at the work if he could keep his hands off the young girls on the bus, but as the play opens he's down to the shabbiest employer and his last nerve. Seeking shelter at his friend Fred's hotel outside Acapulco, he finds instead Fred's lusty widow Maxine, her much-younger Mexican employee and lover, Nazi Germans boisterously celebrating the firebombing of London, and Hannah, a mysterious woman traveling with her dying grandfather. Meanwhile, a group of Baptist lady teachers agitate for Shannon's immediate firing, arrest, and/or crucifixion because he's both seduced their charge and taken them to questionable restaurants.

In the well-paced Actors Ensemble production now running at the Live Oak Theatre, Jeff Bell's Shannon is a mixed bag. Sometimes Bell is easy to believe as a tortured man riding a fine line. Other times he jumps his colleagues' lines, responding to things that haven't happened yet ("Why are you breathing like that?" he asks Hannah before she's started doing the deep breathing she uses to calm herself) and doesn't appear to be engaged with the other actors. The chemistry between Hannah and Shannon — upon which the whole story hinges — is spotty. While we can see he's drawn to her, it would be nice to also see the reverse.

In The Broken World of Tennessee Williams, Esther Jackson notes that Hannah is one of the playwright's few "good beings"; she stands a chance of helping Shannon reclaim his soul. But the virgin/whore dichotomy between Hannah (a delicately firm Margery Bailey) and Maxine (a bawdy, exaggerated Laura Jane Bailey) is not as clear-cut as it may at first seem, which both actresses get. Hannah readily agrees with Shannon's assessment of her as a hustler because of the way she wheedles people into buying her paintings, while Maxine's carnality cloaks both tenderness and a desire to help Shannon to the best of her ability.

The text is neither perfect nor sacrosanct; Williams was prone to excesses it takes discipline to resist. At the risk of sounding like a heretic, director Eddie Kurtz could have massaged the text to better accommodate both his actors and audiences who don't need everything spelled out for them, but he didn't, and the changes he did make don't always work. Williams wrote Maxine as a laugher, and having these ejaculations be her primary expressive mode gets old fast even when you're reading the play quietly to yourself, let alone watching an actress struggle to justify them. Shannon and Hannah's heart-to-heart in the third act is overlong and overstated. The question of whether Shannon and Maxine have been intimate in the past is ambiguous in the text. Either they were not, and Maxine's flirtation now is an attempt to make up for lost time, or they were, in which case why does she keep mentioning that he's never with women his own age? It's a subtle question on paper, but not in the almost-cartoonish playing here, which feels like both actors haven't signed on for the same choice.

The German holidaymakers are necessary for the scary-funhouse energy that suggests how close Shannon is to snapping; Williams' own stage direction marks their entrance as "strange, dreamlike." But Kurtz misuses them. He cut down the Fahrenkopf party by half but didn't adjust the dialogue accordingly, making their role in the story even more incomprehensible. Then they swamp every scene they're in. Shannon's great line when they first appear ("What in blazes is this? A little animated cartoon by Hieronymus Bosch?") is inaudible over the music that accompanies their entrance, just as Miss Fellowes telling Shannon that all of the women on the tour have contracted dysentery is lost under the Fahrenkopfs' stamping feet.

There really was a Hotel Costa Verde, over the rain forest and the beach. Williams stayed there in 1940, going for night swims and drinking rum cocos on the verandah. Rose Anne Raphael's set positively sweats with authenticity, evoking shabby tropical guesthouses the world over. Meanwhile Dan Cantrell's music is lovely, if too often used bombastically.

Iguana has great dialogue and characters, and it's interesting as a document of where Williams was as a writer just before his partner of fourteen years was diagnosed with lung cancer. Frank Merlo's death in 1963 plunged Williams into a decade-long depression, and while he continued to write and evolve, Iguana was the last of his plays to garner wide acclaim. It also deftly delineates what Williams called "perhaps the major theme of my writings, the affliction of loneliness that follows me like my shadow, a very ponderous shadow too heavy to drag after me all of my days and nights." For all of its other challenges, the Actors Ensemble production does capture that note.

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