Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?
Here, it's almost as if Amanda Wingfield is still waiting for all those gentleman callers to return, decades later; or Violet Venable is still primping herself to be squired around by her handsome son, long after he's gone. There might be something a little bit ludicrous about all of that, right? In this case, it's done for very sly comedy.
This 90-minute show is funny, occasionally outrageous, and ultimately delightful. The only problem is us: it may be a little challenging for the audience to loosen up and enjoy itnot because of the acting or directing, but due to our ironclad reverence for the playwright, and perhaps even due to the setting itself. Tennessee Williams gets everything right, including self-parody with genuine laughsfrom the desperation of slightly heightened Williams characters who may have committed their entire lives to less than perfect romantic ideals. You just have to listen for the comical clues.
We follow the actors from room to room in the very charming, 127-year-old Stockton House, with a beautiful old entry hall (just east of Powell Symphony Hall) and featuring a lovely grand staircase, a big window above that, and three other first-floor rooms. But it all raises a strictly 21st century question: Can immersive theater, the new height of voyeurism, actually be funny?
Gradually and very gently the answer is yes. Julie Layton, an actress with broad experience and a great analytical mind, becomes quite funny as Louise, the quintessential Williams woman, pining almost maniacally (at times) for her own mysterious, possibly imaginary gentleman caller, Mr. Merriwether. If her performance were to tilt just one or two more degrees out of its current mental balance, in her most extreme moments, Ms. Layton would almost be ready to appear on the classic "Carol Burnett Show." But she never totally falls off the tightrope of elegance required in this playeven as, gradually, her Louise veers into comical madness under the respectful/parody direction of Jef Awada.
In any case, the alleged Mr. Merriwether's job in sales has apparently taken him away. And Nora, a nosy neighbor, played by madcap and heartwarming Kelley Weber, tries to throw cold water on Louise's monomaniacal yearning. Nora has committed her life to a very different romantic ideal, as a spiritualist, and in that vein Ms. Weber steadfastly patrols the battlements of the show's comical aspirations.
Here and there, the play's theme of committing one's self to a "less than perfect romantic ideal" may seem badly out of date, nearly 50 years after it was written: Ms. Weber is a pure comic force of nature as Nora, conjuring apparitions as an all-consuming passion; and Louise's teenage daughter Gloria (the outstanding Molly McCaskill) sleeps around a lot, as her contribution to the over-arching theme. But nearly half the cast is made up of cross-dressing actors, which may be a little politically incorrect in 2017, even though terrific performers (in the "wrong gender's" 19th century clothes) still add a lot to the comic bona fides.
As a product of its own time (written in 1969), this rare revival has no serious message about transsexual politics, instead mining blurred sexuality in a traditional manner: with the great Terry Meddows being quite delicious as the richest woman in town (looking like Angela Lansbury in Death on the Nile) and as a simpler, loving school teacher; plus the usually stately Bob Harvey as a very stern lady librarian, and later a mysterious relation to a famous French poet.
Thanks to all the cross-dressers on hand, there are definite moments of Oscar Wilde-inspired comedy as the show gains momentum. Messrs. Meddows and Harvey return with the impressive Sophia Brown as a trio of mysterious old women, enraptured by visions of Vera's daughter and a young male classmate having sex in a field of wildflowers, while that action takes place off-stage.
It's a very lovely way to handle that particular moment. Gloria and a boyish, stammering student known as "Romantically Handsome Youth," played by Jacob Flekier, soon return to dance a beautiful ballet through the rest of the play, in their own personal afterglow. (I saw the play at a very bright and sunny matinee, which was strangely magical: a blinding western light flooded the elegant 1890 house, and the dancing pair seemed to fluoresce in their vintage white underwear.)
It's really a remarkable atmosphere, with Ms. Brown performing as the apparitions of Van Gogh and later as the poet Rimbaud, in sad returns from the mystical beyond. Jack Wild gently strums a banjo throughout, speaking calmly and wisely as the show's narrator. Then, in the end, there's this genuinely horrible, tragic, Williams-esque momentpossibly the most painful Williams-type sadness ever brought to the stageand it happens almost exactly 60 seconds before a huge twist-ending.
I walked out with a huge, idiotic grin on my face.
Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?, through May 21, 2017, at the Stockton House, 3508 Samuel Shepherd Drive. For more information www.twstl.org.
Director: Jef Awada