Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?
Tennessee Williams Festival of St. Louis
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's reviews of A Human Being Died That Night and 4000 Miles

Bob Harvey, Julie Layton, Kelley Weber, and
Terry Meddows

Photo by Ride Hamilton
The 2017 Tennessee Williams Festival of St. Louis is almost over, but it goes out on a remarkable note with Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?.

Here, it's almost as if Amanda Wingfield is still waiting for all those gentleman callers to return, decades later; or Violet Venable is still primping herself to be squired around by her handsome son, long after he's gone. There might be something a little bit ludicrous about all of that, right? In this case, it's done for very sly comedy.

This 90-minute show is funny, occasionally outrageous, and ultimately delightful. The only problem is us: it may be a little challenging for the audience to loosen up and enjoy it—not because of the acting or directing, but due to our ironclad reverence for the playwright, and perhaps even due to the setting itself. Tennessee Williams gets everything right, including self-parody with genuine laughs—from the desperation of slightly heightened Williams characters who may have committed their entire lives to less than perfect romantic ideals. You just have to listen for the comical clues.

We follow the actors from room to room in the very charming, 127-year-old Stockton House, with a beautiful old entry hall (just east of Powell Symphony Hall) and featuring a lovely grand staircase, a big window above that, and three other first-floor rooms. But it all raises a strictly 21st century question: Can immersive theater, the new height of voyeurism, actually be funny?

Gradually and very gently the answer is yes. Julie Layton, an actress with broad experience and a great analytical mind, becomes quite funny as Louise, the quintessential Williams woman, pining almost maniacally (at times) for her own mysterious, possibly imaginary gentleman caller, Mr. Merriwether. If her performance were to tilt just one or two more degrees out of its current mental balance, in her most extreme moments, Ms. Layton would almost be ready to appear on the classic "Carol Burnett Show." But she never totally falls off the tightrope of elegance required in this play—even as, gradually, her Louise veers into comical madness under the respectful/parody direction of Jef Awada.

In any case, the alleged Mr. Merriwether's job in sales has apparently taken him away. And Nora, a nosy neighbor, played by madcap and heartwarming Kelley Weber, tries to throw cold water on Louise's monomaniacal yearning. Nora has committed her life to a very different romantic ideal, as a spiritualist, and in that vein Ms. Weber steadfastly patrols the battlements of the show's comical aspirations.

Here and there, the play's theme of committing one's self to a "less than perfect romantic ideal" may seem badly out of date, nearly 50 years after it was written: Ms. Weber is a pure comic force of nature as Nora, conjuring apparitions as an all-consuming passion; and Louise's teenage daughter Gloria (the outstanding Molly McCaskill) sleeps around a lot, as her contribution to the over-arching theme. But nearly half the cast is made up of cross-dressing actors, which may be a little politically incorrect in 2017, even though terrific performers (in the "wrong gender's" 19th century clothes) still add a lot to the comic bona fides.

As a product of its own time (written in 1969), this rare revival has no serious message about transsexual politics, instead mining blurred sexuality in a traditional manner: with the great Terry Meddows being quite delicious as the richest woman in town (looking like Angela Lansbury in Death on the Nile) and as a simpler, loving school teacher; plus the usually stately Bob Harvey as a very stern lady librarian, and later a mysterious relation to a famous French poet.

Thanks to all the cross-dressers on hand, there are definite moments of Oscar Wilde-inspired comedy as the show gains momentum. Messrs. Meddows and Harvey return with the impressive Sophia Brown as a trio of mysterious old women, enraptured by visions of Vera's daughter and a young male classmate having sex in a field of wildflowers, while that action takes place off-stage.

It's a very lovely way to handle that particular moment. Gloria and a boyish, stammering student known as "Romantically Handsome Youth," played by Jacob Flekier, soon return to dance a beautiful ballet through the rest of the play, in their own personal afterglow. (I saw the play at a very bright and sunny matinee, which was strangely magical: a blinding western light flooded the elegant 1890 house, and the dancing pair seemed to fluoresce in their vintage white underwear.)

It's really a remarkable atmosphere, with Ms. Brown performing as the apparitions of Van Gogh and later as the poet Rimbaud, in sad returns from the mystical beyond. Jack Wild gently strums a banjo throughout, speaking calmly and wisely as the show's narrator. Then, in the end, there's this genuinely horrible, tragic, Williams-esque moment—possibly the most painful Williams-type sadness ever brought to the stage—and it happens almost exactly 60 seconds before a huge twist-ending.

I walked out with a huge, idiotic grin on my face.

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?, through May 21, 2017, at the Stockton House, 3508 Samuel Shepherd Drive. For more information

Director: Jef Awada

Louise: Julie Layton
Nora: Kelley Weber
Gloria: Molly McCaskill
Miss York, Mrs. Eldridge, French Club Woman, Crone #3: Terry Meddows*
Van Gogh, French Instructor, Rimbaud, Crone #1: Sophia Brown
The Librarian, Mrs. Biddle, Isabelle, Crone #2: Bob Harvey
Romantically Handsome Youth: Jacob Flekier

Stage Manager, Sound Design: Michael Perkins
Production Manager: Pamela Reckamp
Casting: Carrie Houk, CSA
Costume Designer: Robin McGee
Production Design: Annina Christensen
Lighting Design: Michael Sullivan
Assistant Stage Manager: Kaylie Carpenter
Wardrobe Supervisor, Wig Designer: Abby Schmidt
Dramaturge: Paige McGinley
Choreographer: James Robey

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