Splendor in the Grass
Playwright William Inge was raised in Kansas and worked in St. Louis as a drama critic before making it on Broadway with Come Back, Little Sheba. He went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Picnic and his Bus Stop and Dark at the Top of the Stairs became respected movies, like the other two works. But it all began with Sheba and, after that (as it says in Wikipedia), "he never had to come back to St. Louis," whose crucible of hellish extremes ushered Mississippi-born Tennessee Williams into the history books, too.
But, to gradually come to the point, Inge's 1961 movie Splendor In The Grass won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (though the most notable competition that year came from La Dolce Vita and Lover Come Back). Flash-forward, then, to over 45 years later, when F. Andrew Leslie turned Splendor into a play in 1998: you'd think it'd be right at home on the stage, wouldn't you?
Well, frankly, you'd be wrong. But I'm still not sure who to blame, Inge or Leslie, for the thoughtlessness and lack of poetry in this one, set in rural Kansas in the 1920s. What's that withering quote critics love to whip out? "The leading lady wore a blue dress"? It's how we sidestep the ungracious occupation of stomping on the weakest link. I give you Mr. Inge and Mr. Leslie: both crammed together, forever now, into that same blue dress.
But, miraculously, they don't look half-bad, as this particular gown is woven from the heart and soul of actors filled to the brim with authentic conviction and love and terror and doubt (all controlled by a professional-strength brand of precision), in spite of all that bleached-out prose. Go see it, and marvel at how a big gang of teenagers (and the very fine people playing their parents) manage to out-do the author of Picnic and Bus Stop. In the case of this Splendor, though, it's the triumph of art over money.
Now, see? I sat down and thought I was just going to spend the whole time raving about Kathryn Hunter, as Deanie (the Natalie Wood role), but I'm only just getting to her now. Ms. Hunter performs with such passion and power that, halfway through the first act, your jaw will just gradually begin to drop in astonishment at all she's able to accomplish in a carefully modulated nervous breakdown. Jeremy Hyatt is excellent in the Warren Beatty role: noble and constrained and all those things that don't really show him off at all, of course. But there's not a single weak moment in his work.
Eleanor Mullin breaks new ground in her own performance as Ms. Hunter's mother: foolish, greedy and horrified. And Tom Kavanaugh, as her husband, is utterly selfless and real, and perpetually embarrassed trying to bring her back down to earth time and again. Mark Slaten is very good as the gruff tycoon (the father to Mr. Hyatt). And, though he seemed to have some uneven pacing in his scenes with Ann Egenriether (as his wife) on opening night, their characters were still deeply etched, which probably counts for more than good pacing (in a slice-of-life drama, anyway).
Kelli Rao is thorough and relentless, with her prim earnestness, as the high school teacher; and Shahnaz Ahmed and her friends (including Rebecca Basson) are all terrific, Dr. Ahmed being foremost among the girls. Beautiful Breawn Bradford is jazzy and bitter as the tycoon's rebellious flapper daughter. An actress with only one name, Constance, is perfect as the temptress Juanita. And Kellie Grezinger is a tremendous relief to the whole ordeal, as a kind-hearted Italian girl, Angelina.
Everyone else seems to deserve special mention too, but they each get a solo bow at the end (which, as a result, seems to go on forever). Who knows? Maybe they're too good, and should just play-down to the level of a big-screen, three-hankie weeper. But Inge is supposed to be above kitschor at least his best known work is. (Like a lot of translations of films on to the stage, there are also a godawful lot of set changes, but they're all accomplished with the same high level of dedication we see among the actors.)
You certainly can't blame director Mann for taking it all so seriously: regardless of their levels of experience, she's helped each performer to complete a thoroughly rich and honest journey all his or her own, even the kids who "only" appear in classroom scenes, or at their nighttime dances, or at a tragedy on a river bank. I look forward to praising each of them individually in their next appearances.
Through February 3, 2013, at 6501 Clayton Road, in the former CBC prep school, just east of the Esquire movie theater (by Big Bend Blvd.). For more information go to www.placeseveryone.org or call (314) 721-9228 for pre-recorded information.
Photo: John Lamb