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The Night of the Iguana at The Vortex Theatre

Also see Brian's review of The Last Five Years

The Night of the Iguana
George Bach and Lori Stewart
Solitary confinement in a self-created prison. Fury at religious hypocrites who promote God as a senile delinquent. Lust for the sweet bird of youth in adolescent female bodies. Exhausting tropical fevers. Mind-numbing alcohol addiction. Remorse for failing everyone. Soul-crushing despair. These demons beset the protagonist, exiled Episcopalian priest T. Lawrence Shannon, in Tennessee Williams' last and darkest of his five greatest plays.

Reverend Shannon arrives disheveled at the crumbling Costa Verde Hotel on Mexico's west coast seeking refuge from a tour group he's leading of angry school teachers from Baptist Female College in Blowing Rock, Texas. Sweating and feverish in his rumpled white linen but displaying a large gold cross around his neck as salvation or albatross, he calls out to an old friend, hoping for counsel. Instead, Fred's lusty widow Maxine greets him with the news that Fred died two weeks ago of blood poisoning. She's hot to bed Shannon in Fred's place, have him fill Fred's shoes literally.

Shannon has barely flopped into the hammock when Miss Fellowes "comes chargin' up the hill like a bull elephant on a rampage," as Shannon describes her, from the tour group demanding the bus key so they can leave. He wants them to stay at Maxine's decaying resort while he recovers or he'll lose his last hope of a job. Fellowes calls a Texas judge from Maxine's phone to sack him, not only for leading his tour astray, but also for statutory rape of 16-year-old Charlotte Goodall, Fellowes' voice pupil, who wails outside his room: "Larry, open up this door and let me in! I don't believe you don't love me."

Into this nest of tropical lust, an odd duo arrives: beautiful, ethereal, spinsterish Hannah Jelkes and her grandfather, "97 years young" as Hannah introduces him, the oldest living and practicing poet. They've traveled around the globe selling their services to collect enough to pay expenses. Nonno recites his poems as Hannah sketches guests during meals at resorts. While Shannon finds the duo refreshing, Maxine sizes up Hannah as a competitor for Shannon's attentions.

Mexican boys who work for Maxine and go night swimming with her have tied an iguana with a rope around its neck. As it scratches to survive, Hannah recognizes their common plight in that of the reptilian creature and begs Shannon to free it, which he does. Liberating the iguana into the drenching pre-dawn frees Nonno's creativity to finish a poem he's been working on for decades and then die.

Williams' perfectly structured modern tragedy moves relentlessly through three acts with minimal time breaks between acts. Not only Shannon, but also the two leading female characters journey as doomed souls through a long night's journey into day where each faces his/her classic recognition of fate. All of the characters are hustling wares and services just to survive and possibly escape their separate prisons.

Leslee Richards has courageously directed this first play by Williams in the Albuquerque Williams Festival 2011 to honor the playwright's 100th birthday. Richards is admired by local audiences as actor (recently Shaw's Candida at the Adobe Theatre), director (A Midsummer Night's Dream in the 2010 Summer Shakespeare Festival at The Vortex), designer, former President of the Vortex Board of Directors, and as manager of Lieber's Luggage.

With set designer Barbara Bock, lighting designer Mike Miller, props designer Claudia Mathes, sound designer Marty Epstein, and costume designer Teddy Eggleston, Richards creates convincing 1940s tropical dilapidation in a small performing space. She's paced a long play with appropriate cuts from the original script so that the infernal tragic machine rolls swiftly from a lazy late September afternoon off-season into the next day's dawn where each character must muster courage to struggle onward. In less than 24 hours, performed in 130 minutes, the three main characters show primal metamorphosis.

George Bach gives us a convincing but uneven Shannon. In showing us the illness of the despairing priest in the opening scene, Bach seems almost lethargic, but his character grows toward the final dramatic scene. Like the symbolic iguana, Bach as Shannon lashes wildly against the restraining ropes and tries to rip the gold cross heavy with symbolism off his neck, letting his panic and passion "at the end of his rope" flame out. Bach, who holds a Dramatic Arts degree from Centre College in Kentucky, has performed as Orsino in The American Shakespeare Project's Twelfth Night and in Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well that Ends Well, King John, and Macbeth.

Lori Stewart creates a sharp and spirited Maxine, but she doesn't give us the sweaty rapacious sensuality that others playing the role often exhibit, the antithesis to the virginal Hannah. Bach's and Stewart's portrayals may reveal our differences in taste and interpretation and not any lack of skill, since both are seasoned actors. Stewart directed Othello for The Aux Dog and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at The Vortex.

As Hannah, Antonya Molleur brilliantly conveys the complexity of a woman who has chosen a limited life of devotion to her grandfather. With graceful movements and faint amusement she shows us the restraint and deliberate simplicity of a woman who has grown in virtue despite her temptations to existential despair, not unlike Shannon's. Molleur has performed in several local productions, on audio theater, and on TV and films.

Rick Wiles as Nonno rivets our focus whenever he speaks. A treasure of current Albuquerque theatre, Wiles has performed, mostly professionally, for almost sixty years. Albuquerque is blessed with seasoned actors retiring here and continuing to grace local stages with their wealth of skill and talent.

Good actors in all minor roles complete the ensemble. UNM music and theatre student Bryan Garcia gives us a delightful Pedro. Jason Barber plays Hank, the bus driver, his first stage role. Mike Lash gives us an appropriately seedy Jake, the new tour guide. Ashley Weingardt plays Charlotte with amusing desperation and vulnerability. Best of all in a minor role, Linda Sklov as the "butch" choir director Miss Fellowes amuses us with her bustling fury and efficiency.

The Night of the Iguana opened at The Vortex Theatre, 2004 Central Ave. NE, Albuquerque, on the eve of Tennessee Williams' 100th birthday and runs four weekends, March 25 to April 17, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $15, cash, check, Visa or Mastercard. For reservations, visit vortexabq.org or call 505-247-8600.


Photo: Alan Mitchell

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-- Rosemary Keefe



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