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Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Tennessee Williams Fugitive Kind Professional World Premier At Marin Theatre Company

Artistic Director Lee Sankowich of the Marin Theatre Company is presenting the professional world premiere of Tennessee Williams' drama The Fugitive Kind. The production runs thru February 9th at their theater in Mill Valley. The play was written in 1937 when Williams was a 26 year old college student. There were only two amateur performances of the play, produced by The Mummers of St. Louis in 1937. Williams had written many drafts of the play, and Mr. Sankowich was further given permission to edit and include materials from the drafts. (This drama should not be confused with the United Artists film of the same name that starred Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani. That film was based on Williams' Orpheus Descending.)

The Fugitive Kind supports a large ensemble cast of actors. You can see the germination of characters like Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois that would make Mr. Williams famous later. One can see that the playwright was greatly influenced in his early years by such writers as Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, Maxwell Anderson and Eugene O'Neill. This play has scenes very reminiscent of, though inferior to, O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and Odets' Winterset. However, one must remember that this was a young 27 year old college student trying to find his way to writing masterpieces like Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.

Fugitive takes place in the lobby of a flophouse on the St. Louis waterfront during the Christmas season of 1937. Beds at the Okay House go for 15 cents a night, which is big money for these down and out transients. The place is run by Jewish immigrant Mr. Gwendlebaum (Ed Sarafian) who is a penny pitching Sam Goldwyn character. His mousey daughter Glory (Emily Ackerman) runs the hotel and attempts to be tough under an exterior of loneliness (one might get the feeling that this character might someday become the lead female in Sweet Bird of Youth). Gwendlebaum also has an adopted son Leo (Richard Gallagher), who probably is pattern after Williams himself. He is a radical college student who is about to be kicked out of school for writing about "fascism in the R.O.T.C."

The play has two main storylines running throughout the almost three hour production, with intermission. The primary story is about a well dress fugitive from justice (Scott Coopwood) who uses the flophouse for his cover. The playwright must have been influenced by the acting of Bogart since this character is straight out of a Warner Bros. film of the '30s. He is a gangster with a heart of gold. Romance blooms between the two mismatch persons and you know that it will in tragedy. The second or minor storyline concerns Leo being kicked out of college because of his "radical" views, and his tension with his conservative father. Leo attempts to run away from home but is just too weak to carry the plan through.

There are flaws in this drama, especially in the opening scene. It looks like director Sankowich uses a starter gun for the ensemble. The down and outers all come rushing into the lobby, and talk flows fast and furious. Much of the dialogue is drowned out by the cast speaking too rapidly, over each other and yelling quite a bit. It is just too much to begin a play. Finally, the play settles down when the fugitive stranger comes into the plot. Some of the dialogue is strictly from the '30s, very melodramatic, very Odets and very Warner Bros.

The second act is mostly pontification about the social ills of America in the '30s. There are two very long solo speeches. In one, Terry talks about his early life, the struggle to have nice clothes and go to nice places. Then Leo talks about the turbulent world at the start of 1938. Leo pontificates the philosophy of the playwright and how he identifies with the downtrodden, the cold, hungry, huddled masses and the victims of unfeeling, privileged corporate world. That theme runs through the whole play.

The acting is somewhat interesting with characters coming in and out of the front door at a rapid pace and racing to deliver their lines. A firebug named Abe comes into the lobby and keeps repeating "My name is Abe White and I am from Sandusky, Ohio." (he is well played by Louis Parnell) He keeps lighting matches, and this really has nothing to do with the play. There is a character named Texas (Kurt Ziskie) who sings country blues songs, an old man (Ralph Miller) apparently dying of consumption, a drifter who is a womanizer (Nick Sholley), an alcoholic (Michael Ray Wisely) who wants to get his shovel out of hock since there is a snow storm coming and he can make some extra money shoveling snow off the "rich man's sidewalks for the New Years Eve," and even a lady of the night (Danielle Thys) who comes into the lobby once. All of these actors define their characters very well.

Ed Sarafian, as usual, is excellent as Mr. Gwendlebaum and he has the Jewish accent down pat. Richard Gallagher, a fine actor, tends to rush his lines a little too much, especially during his big solo scene in the second act. Scott Coopwood plays his role like Bogart while Emily Ackerman is good as the mousey daughter. There is a little of Ida Lupino and Claire Trevor in her acting.

The Fugitive Kind is an interesting play, especially if you want to see an early Williams work being brought to the professional stage. Of course, it does not match his later work, but you can see a sprinkling of the gems who dominate his classic plays. Once the actors slow down their speeches, it should make an interesting '30s evening at the theater. The drama runs thru February 9th at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, Ca. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or visit Opening on March 13 will be Allan Knee's Syncopation.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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