The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Also see Rob's review of Time Stands Still
If you've been paying any attention at all to Albuquerque's theatre scene lately, you'll have noticed that there are quite a lot of Tennessee Williams plays in production. That's because this year marks the famous playwright's 100th birthday, and Albuquerque theatre-makers are celebrating with a year-long Tennessee Williams festival to honor Williams' contributions to the stage. The UNM Department of Theatre and Dance is joining in the celebration with its production of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
Set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, shortly before the First World War, Eccentricities follows its protagonist, young Miss Alma Winemiller, a minister's daughter whose eccentric personality and unbridled love for life make her an outsider in her conservative Southern town. Alma's mother suffers from what appears to be mental illness; Mrs. Winemiller at times mumbles incoherently to herself or bursts across the stage half-clothed, her lush purple robe falling off her shoulders. Alma's father, Reverend Winemiller, reminds one of a Puritan minister: stern and firmly religious, constantly preaching to Alma about the crosses we must bear in life (one of his being his unstable wife). You could believe that the man almost never smiles.
Director Shepard Sobel has worked as a freelance director and teacher in Albuquerque since 2009. The set design is simple yet effective" painted brown floors emulate the dusty floors of the South; a table and chairs serve as the Winemiller dining room; and a desk represents a doctor's office. Most notable is the large stone figurea kneeling angelset up as the fountain in the town square. The angel juxtaposes with Alma's youth, life and movement, and bears the name "Eternity" across its base.
All of the actors are UNM students, and all are equally impressive. Amanda Machon pours herself into the character of Almathe "nightingale" of the storywhose name, we learn toward the end of the play, means "soul." Machon serenades the audience with her lovely soprano and startles us with an almost maniacal laugh. Her movements emulate a flitting bird, as does her costume; she holds her arms delicately outstretched when she walks or sings, and the long, flowing sleeves of her white dress trail behind her like wings. Alma almost never sits still, unless harshly told to do so by her father. She flies about the stage like a bird trapped in a room, unable to break free yet unable to stop trying. And that is just what Alma's dilemma seems to be: she constantly feels suffocated by the prim and proper expectations everyone has of her, and she is dismissed as "hysterical" for expressing her true feelings. Only while singing does Alma feel truly free and alive, and this is clear through Machon's passionate expressions and gestures.
The only character who seems to understand Alma's eccentricities is the young Dr. John Buchanan, played by Quinn Rol, a veteran of UNM Theatre's stage. At first glance, John appears to be the typical all-American man: handsome, successful, and kind to everyoneeven Alma's wild mother. Alma pines longingly for her next-door neighbor, but her feelings are unrequited. Rol gives a solid performance that reveals the hidden nuances of John's character. He doesn't seem to agree with society's standards, defending Alma before his uptight mother and confessing how much he respects her transparency, yet he doesn't seem entirely opposed to them, either. He'll move away to start practicing medicine soon, and will likely settle down with a "normal" girl from the North. John sees the real the reason for Alma's eccentric outbursts; what others deem to be illness he recognizes as loneliness. After the climactic scene between John and Alma in a rented hotel roomwhere Alma hopes for a romantic trystJohn kisses Alma in spite of himself, clearly moved by her uncommon honesty and perhaps indicating dissatisfaction with his own neatly planned life. Here, Rol is finally able to break John out of his box and show some of his own emotional diversity. Rol's talent is evidenced throughout the production by his subtle yet telling facial expressions.
Mrs. Buchanan and Reverend Winemiller, played by Carly Moses and Drew Morrison, respectively, represent the standards of society that oppress Alma's liveliness. Morrison can't be more than twenty-five, but his fierce performance makes him appear aged and hardened by years of religious self-discipline. He walks firmly with a stiff posture and stares Alma down with a constantly furrowed brow. Moses plays the overprotective, over-involved mother perfectly, insisting on petting John's hair and feet until they're dry so he doesn't catch a cold. Her disapproval of Alma is tangible; even when saying lines from off-stage, you just know that Moses has her nose turned up. Finally, Ashley Weingardt successfully throws herself into her own eccentric performance as Mrs. Winemiller. Her movements are both wild and precise; she reacts instantly at the touch of Morrison's hand and seems always to be on the breaking point.
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale is performing in the Experimental Theatre at UNM's Popejoy Hall through October 9th, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. General tickets are $15, faculty and seniors $12, staff and students $10. For information and tickets, visit theatre.unm.edu or unmtickets.com.