William Inge wrote four plays - Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs - that defined drama for Broadway in the 1950s. With incisive writing that cut right to the core of personal and family issues, even today his plays are regarded as major contributions to 20th century drama.
Looking at the seven short Inge plays comprising Transport Group's Requiem for William, it's easy to see why. Each play seizes upon an emotion or desire and explores it with great depth and detail, whether as simple as a devoted autograph hound who will wait forever for Perry Como to emerge from the 21 Club or as complex as a heartbreaking study of lost youth. The plays show Inge at the height of his powers, a first-rate dramatist who could weave theatrical magic in even just a few minutes, even when dealing with subjects considered darker or more taboo when they were written in the 1950s. (More than one play deals with at least implicit homosexuality.)
The direction of Jack Cummings III (who also conceived the show) is strong throughout, highlighting the dramatically rich situations and dialogue, in which every word seems to be steeped with at least two layers of meaning. But Cummings presents it simply and honestly, with an innate sense for what works and what doesn't. John Story's scenic design (suggesting autumn at a cemetery - highly appropriate) and R. Lee Kennedy's lights both help him establish an exquisite atmosphere into which all of the plays fit naturally and completely.
A top-flight cast helps, too. Of the nearly 30 members of the company (none of whom appear in more than one play), there's no weak link. Of the particular standouts, Tina Johnson is wonderful as the autograph seeker in To Bobolink, For Her Spirit, Toni DuBuono creates a satirically comic (and insensitive) busybody landlady in The Tiny Closet, and Marni Nixon and Joseph Kolinski give powerful performances as a domineering mother and a son with a secret in The Boy in the Basement.
However, the conception of Requiem for William falters a bit in the musical area, as each of the six plays is followed by a song written by a different songwriter or songwriting team. Though Mary-Mitchell Campbell's musical direction and the three piece ensemble are sharp, and the singers talented, the songs are mostly forgettable. Though ostensibly functioning as an epilogue to each play, the songs usually do little more than take hold of the play's final emotion and extend it almost into absurdity, usually while one character remains spotlit, center stage, basking in an emotion roughly akin to overwhelming despair. This gets old quickly.
Only one songwriter avoids this trap. Michael John LaChiusa was entrusted with the framing song for the evening, "How Much Love?" introduced beautifully by Lovette George. In just a few lines set against a warm, yet haunting, melody, he captures the essence of Inge's works, questioning and exploring the boundaries of our emotions and reactions to them. As each of the plays develops this theme in some way, there is a cohesion that truly comes to life when the entire company joins in at the end of the play, singing the song as a tribute to Inge, fully realizing the title of the play.
Yet LaChiusa's work succeeds because it recognizes its position in establishing and accenting the action, not trying to be a part of it. He and Cummings most aptly realize that Inge was capable of speaking for himself, and when Requiem for William allows that to happen, his words (and the spirit and life behind them) could not be more clear.