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Chicago by John Olson

Tennessee Williams’ One Arm

One Arm
Josh Bywater, Reynaldo Rosales and Michael Stahl-David
For his follow-up to The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman has turned to an unproduced screenplay of Tennessee Williams', which is based on a short story Williams published in 1948. The piece is receiving its world premiere in a co-production of Kaufman's Tectonic Theatre Project, Chicago's About Face Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The story concerns a young man in the late 1930s who had been light heavyweight champion boxer of the Pacific Fleet while in the Navy, but lost an arm in an auto accident and is reduced to hustling as a male prostitute. He drifts across the country and eventually is arrested for the murder of a man who hired him to perform in a blue movie and then makes advances on him after the shoot. He is convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. While in solitary confinement on death row he receives thousands of letters from his "johns," which gradually reawaken his emotions and restore in him a feeling of connectedness to other humans. Shortly before his execution, he comes to understand how his "services" had meaning for his customers, even though they were simply business and a means of survival for him.

In a post-performance talkback, Kaufman explained that the screenplay Williams left behind would run around three hours on stage. Here, it is adapted to a stage time of around an hour and thirty minutes, which oddly feels too long for the material as Kaufman has shaped it. He presents the former boxer, Ollie (Reynaldo Rosales), as more of a symbol than a character, without giving us much backstory of the kind of man (or boy) Ollie was before the accident, or showing enough insight into Ollie's mind as he transitions into hustling and adopts it as a way of life. Through about two-thirds of the play Ollie is at one place - possessing a numbness that allows him to continue with his hustling. There's insufficient detail to allow us to understand his reluctance to perform in the blue movie and his rage in killing the film producer. Such a two-dimensional character might suffice for an allegorical short story (though Williams in fact gives more backstory to Ollie in the short story than we see on stage), but as written here, the central character is insufficiently interesting for a full-length play. Instead, the first act gives us a number of scenes between Ollie and his johns which continue long after the scenes have made their point. The second act takes place entirely in prison and shows the pain of his literal isolation in solitary, which gets nearly as tedious for us as it is for him.

It seems the basic framework is in place to better shape the character's journey, but the glue between the scenes meant to provide this texture still needs to be applied. In act one, a scene between a heartless Ollie and an older, intensely lonely john is followed by a (free) one-night stand between Ollie and a young woman (a touching portrayal by Kelli Simpkins). Ollie says he enjoyed the night with her and it seems we're supposed to witness the beginning of his ability to connect, but he still seems too self-absorbed for us to believe it. Later, when hired to do the blue movie, he hesitates and tries to convince his female "co-star" (Shané Williams, in a brief but moving performance) that their self-esteem should prohibit them from performing. It's not clear where this sudden increase in self-worth has come from, and his murder of the filmmaker seems insufficiently motivated.

Reynaldo Rosales has the necessary charisma and looks to command the audience's attention throughout the piece, though the script gives him little in the way of details that might help him build a more nuanced performance. He may want to tap into Williams' short story and use some of it as subtext to further flesh out Ollie. He gets solid support from his supporting cast of 12, who all play multiple roles. Standouts (in addition to Shané Williams and Kelli Simpkins) include Joe Van Slyke as the aging john whose vulnerability and pain is quite palpable and Steven Key as a confused divinity student who becomes Ollie's last human connection.

Derek McLane's atmospheric set uses scaffolding to suggest scenes ranging from low-rent areas of New York and New Orleans to the prison in which Ollie sits on death row. The settings are easily imagined and the action clearly understood even without literal visualization.

Kaufman's directorial skill is clearly evident and, even at this early stage, he has delivered an impressive, polished production. In his post-performance talkback, he discussed his goal of moving beyond the school of theatrical naturalism that has been predominant for some 100 years. His impressionistic approach begins with the premise that we are seeing "the screenplay that was never produced" as a narrator (looking like Tennessee Williams in the 1930s) sits in a corner downstage right reading from it, setting up scenes as "close-ups," "long shots" or "exteriors." Kaufman says he'd like to do the piece as a film some day. It's a shame that the subject matter was too shocking for its time, because one can picture it as a great 1950s black and white film in the mold of A Streetcar Named Desire or Sweet Smell of Success.

One Arm is pure Williams in its depiction of sexual tension and forbidden desires and its capturing of the seamier sides of urban American life in the first half of the 20th century, and it contains at least one vintage Williams line to join the likes of "I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers." Shortly before Ollie's execution, the narrator contends "death never has been much in the way of completion," to suggest the imperfect closure in the attempt to find meaning in Ollie's life.

Kaufman, at the talkback, explained how he and the cast were making changes, including addition and deletion of scenes, right up to the official opening. Undoubtedly, he and Tectonic will be doing additional work to shape the piece. If they can give us reasons to have more interest, empathy or, better yet, identification with Ollie, One Arm has the potential to become a truly moving and disturbing piece.

One Arm will run through December 19, 2004 in the Downstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday - Sunday, with matinees at 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For ticket information, call the Steppenwolf box office at 312-335-1650 or order tickets online at www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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