Before He Was Tennessee 

Back when he was still Thomas, Williams displayed his social conscience.

A homeless man who refuses to go to the hospital because he's sure the doctors are going to feed him to the lab rats. A young Jewish intellectual holding forth on fascism and the ROTC. Blazing guns in a waterfront rooming house. Maybe it's not what we expect from Tennessee Williams, whose best-known characters are mostly women scrambling to hold onto their sanity. But then, Williams wrote his second full-length play Fugitive Kind when he was still a kid using his given name (Thomas) and trying to graduate despite his tendency to fail stagecraft classes. According to Lyle Leverich's biography Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, Williams was not exactly voted "Playwright Most Likely to Succeed" by his college classmates, who snickered at the pieces he read aloud in class. He'd show them all one day -- but he didn't do it with Fugitive Kind, which CenterREP artistic director Lee Sankowich has bravely chosen to stage with a first-rate cast and some "gentle editing" in the intimate Margaret Lesher Theater.

Set in 1937 in the lobby of a waterfront flophouse, Fugitive Kind has the marks of an early work. There are a lot of themes and a lot of characters, all of whom have stories. In addition to his lifelong fascination with the difficulty of family bonds, in Fugitive Kind Williams set out to critique class structure and the inequities engendered by capitalism (thus belying the common assumption that he was apolitical). There's also a gangster on the lam and a love story, as awkward and painful and compelling as any he would later write.

Williams was living a pretty hand-to-mouth existence around the time he wrote Fugitive Kind, and he identified strongly with the poor. One of the most astringent moments comes when a bevy of society ladies arrive with baskets of gifts for the men -- but won't distribute the booty until a photographer shows up. "Baskets of what?" one man asks. Opines another: "Whatever they think the poor deserve; probably rat poison."

Long before he was a playwright, Williams was a poet, a tendency most visible at the beginning and end of his career. It shows here when characters talk about "the cleanness of big things, like mountains" and how life is "splitting and crashing all around me."

Fugitive Kind is long and meandering. It's also fascinating and unpredictable, as we become more invested in the fate of the characters and their sundry fixations -- Abel's (Louis Parnell) fascination with matches, Chuck's (Michael Ray Wisely) plan to get his shovel out of hock so he can make money clearing sidewalks on New Year's Eve, twitchy Bertha (Danielle Thys) hunting for paying clients so she can buy drugs.

Fugitive Kind may not have done so well in part the first time (it saw only two performances) because Williams wrote it for the Mummers, an amateur St. Louis company that rearranged the play beyond his recognition. Sankowich, who actually premiered this show at his other theater (Marin Theater Company), has done the piece more justice, down to the set design. Williams wrote of the Mummers production that he wished they'd managed to work in a big window with the city looming grimly outside; it's too bad he never got to see J.B. Wilson's great set, which is all window and decay and subtle, believable atmospheric effects.

Now that Sankowich has unearthed it, Fugitive Kind is still unlikely to become a Williams staple -- it's very diffuse, especially when companies have the choice of doing one of his better-known, more focused pieces. But it's certainly an exciting addition to the repertoire, and Sankowich deserves tremendous credit for bringing it to light in such an assured, well-acted production.

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