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The Night of The Iguana

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Denise Fiore, Peter Judd, and Derek Roche.
Photo by Rod Goodman.

Portraits of derailment from either emotional or spiritual means have always been great material for comedy or drama. For 53 years, American playwright Tennessee Williams was esteemed for making desperation and discontent his niche with well known plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). Often, these themes were expressed through the "mad heroine" archetype, female characters whose lives were often unstable and were sometimes based on his own family members. In his 1961 drama, The Night of the Iguana, however, Tennessee chose to explore the plight of The Reverent T. Lawrence Shannon (Derek Roche), a "mad hero", ex-minister who is at the end of his rope. Fortunately for the theater patron, the T. Schreiber Studio's production of The Night of the Iguana not only makes Shannon's struggle both visceral and physical, it also breathes life into every visual associated with his struggle.

Set at the Costa Verde Hotel in Mexico during the summer of 1940, the rainforests of that region are well-represented by George Allison's lush, green scenery and Chris Rummel's relentless nature sounds. The action takes place predominantly in the back exterior of the hotel, with bamboo making up the corners and wooden planks making up the floor. It is an impressive sight for both the detailing in the construction and the atmosphere of paradise that it creates. Here we have water that pumps out of a water pump (beware, front row), a local young man, Pancho (Armando Merlo) taking a nap in a hammock, and a recently widowed woman, Maxine Faulk (Janet Saia), in the throes of lovemaking with Pedro (Guito Wingfield) instead of in the pangs of mourning. Maxine is now the owner of Costa Verde, assuming the position from her deceased, older husband Fred. Carnal cares and rhythm-less dancing between the three occupy the opening sequences for a little too long, and at first, it appears that Faulk is the protagonist. Until the object of her desires, the defrocked Episcopalian minister turned statutory rapist and tour guide, appears at her door with yet another crisis.

Shannon is under fire from taking his latest tour off course. Rather than taking the middle-aged, church ladies to the hotel in the brochure, he has stopped for sanctuary and sanity at his friend Fred's hotel. Instead, Shannon finds only his widow, a woman he finds contemptuous for the same carnal and indulgent lifestyle that he occasionally dabbles in. Some of the passengers on board the bus waiting at the end of the hill are Charlotte Goodall (Alecia Medley), his most recent underage bedmate, Hank (Ian Campbell Dunn), the bus driver, and Miss Judith Fellowes (Pat Patterson), the "leader of the insurrection", a very vocal and nosy tour participant who has dug up all the dirt about Shannon's past deeds and won't let him forget them. Everyone wants Shannon off the tour, but he clings to it as the only chance of redemption that he has left. Until the charming and beautiful Hannah Jelkes (Denise Fiore) and her 97-year old grandfather Nonno (Peter Judd) arrive as unwelcome, out-of-season guests of the hotel.

Hannah is at the end of a long journey around the world with her grandfather, having recently run out of money. To fund the trip, she sells her paintings and sketches while her grandfather keeps the crowd entertained with his poetry. She cares for her grandfather as much as she uses him, but her hustling doesn't seem the least bit immoral due to Tennessee's sensitive script and Fiore's genteel manner. The connection between Hannah and Shannon is immediate, and the production proceeds to build upon that connection as the anchor that Shannon needs to keep himself float. They are frank with each other, and boundaries that would normally be set with others fly away between them. He is attracted to her restraint and chastity, and she finds in him a soul that needs healing from the pleasures that she has wondered about, but dare not partake in. And partake in them she won't, not only for her own propriety, but because Faulk will not allow Shannon to be taken with a woman who represents everything she does not: selflessness, kindness and purity. But despite Faulk's dislike of Hannah and her attempts to interfere, she still cannot prevent the meeting of their hearts. As the script says, "a bitch is no match for a lady." But a troubled and lost spirit will accept less than what he is worth.

T. Schreiber Studio's production of The Night of the Iguana is fraught with emotion and reality. From the real rainstorm that takes place beautifully by the end of the first act to the smell of herbal cigarettes that waft into the audience, the cast and crew draw you into Shannon's war with religion and sexuality. In general, the cast perform well under Terry Schreiber's direction, with Fiore standing out as exceptional. Although Roche sometimes flies into fits of overacting, he plays a fractured and torn soul well. Saia makes bold choices with Faulk's character, revealing a wanton woman that is liberal with her body but conservative with her heart. The German family (Loren Dunn, Jenny Strassburg, Bruce Colbert and Gail Willwerth Upp) offer wonderful comic relief as they zip in and out intermittently onstage, but never have any significance to the plot. Despite the extremely long scenes stretched out over nearly three hours of entertainment and some sporadically slow moments, staging choices such as using all four entrances to the space are wise and effective. The Night of the Iguana is a carefully conceived, marvelous rendition of the script with a value that is much greater than its $20 ticket. See it now before the producers change their minds.

The Night of The Iguana
Through March 30
Gloria Maddox Theatre at The T. Schreiber Studio, 151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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