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Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings

April 17, 2009

Three things drew Tara and me to the Washington Shakespeare Company’s new production of Tennessee Williams late play Small Craft Warnings, and maybe it says something about us that one of the chief draws was the bar. The company has reversed the architecture of the Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington, VA, turning the traditional theater into a cavernous welcoming area and then setting up the stage and a small number of seats in what had been the lobby. Theatergoers can grab a drink, take a seat, and get up close and personal to the action — very up close, as one man found out when one of the actresses sat on his lap and as we found out when two of the performers huddled into the corner near our own barstools and started making out. The bar is, to some degree, a working bar, where the audience can get beer and wine at intermission (we had one of each, plus cashews and peanut M&Ms), and the bartender, Monk, picks up the audience’s empties as he delivers his lines. A little gimmicky? Sure. But the set-up caught our attention and lured us in to see how it works. 

The other two draws were related to the play itself. I’m a Tennessee Williams fan, I’ll admit — perhaps by virtue of my general interest in Southern literature. I’ve taught Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a number of times at George Mason, and a few years back, during a weekend in New York, my mom and I all but overdosed on Williams, catching Christian Slater in The Glass Menagerie and John C. Reilly and Natasha Richardson of A Streetcar Named Desire within a 48-hour span and never getting tired. So the chance to see one of Williams’ more rarely-produced plays seemed an opportunity not to be missed. 

And Tara and I were particularly intrigued by the structure of the play, which lacks a clear narrative arc but instead seems to just listen in on a night in a Southern California bar — literally so as each patron (a hard-edged beautician marking the death day of her brother, a brandy-sotted doctor called to deliver a child, an aging homosexual reflecting on the loss of amazement, a muscle boy who likes to roll queers, etc.) at some point takes his or her turn in the spotlight to deliver a dramatic monologue, a little glimpse into their hopes and fears and sorrows.

The set in the WSC’s production is an enchanting piece of craftsmanship (though in the performance we saw the technical staff may have taken too literally Williams’ instructions that the bar “should have the effect of fog rolling in from the ocean,” leaving the set so misty at one point that it obscured the view). And the performances were generally pitch-perfect, though Leona often seemed a little shrill (whether because of the actress playing her or because of the character itself, neither Tara and I were entirely sure). And we found ourselves quickly pulled into the spirit of the play. But some of it’s rough going, I’ll admit, and not always easy to watch. In his “Notes After The Second Invited Audience: (And a Troubled Sleep.)” — reflections on early previews of the original 1972 production — Williams admitted  to being inclined to say, “My God, this is a play about groping!” and urged the cast and crew about “the necessity of building up those elements  in the play not concerned with the groin and the groping so that the audiences will recognize that this is not a sordid piece of writing.” Yet here in this new production, we see a drink- and drug-addled Violet giving hand-jobs to two men at the same table at the same time, and in keeping with the illusion that the audience too is in the bar, the men’s room had Playboy centerfolds and other pin-ups affixed to the walls. And there’s a general sense of moral squalor here that may leave few folks really liking many of these characters.

Still, amidst that occasional leaning toward the sordid that Williams wanted to avoid and mired in a setting  that we might not actually spend too much time in ourselves (Tara turned to me at one point and whispered something like, “Let’s not ever go to this bar in real life”), those monologues help to give both the characters and the play itself a sense of lyricism, not necessarily redemptive or even uplifting but certainly beautiful in its own way. 

All in all, a play we would both highly recommend. As a quick preview, here’s a sample from Monk’s monologue that I found particularly compelling (and kudos to actor John C. Bailey for so fully inhabiting the role):

I’m fond of, I’ve got an affection for, a since interest in my regular customers here. They send me post cards from wherever they go and tell me what’s new in their lives and I am interested in it. Just last month one of them I hadn’t seen in about five years, he died in Mexico City and I was notified of the death and that he’d willed me all he owned in the world, his personal effects and a two-hundred-fifty-dollar saving account in a bank. A thing like that is beautiful as music. These things, these people, take the place of a family in my life. I love to come down those steps from my room to open the place for the evening, and when I’ve closed for the night, I love climbing back up those steps with my can of Ballentine’s ale, and the stories, the jokes, the confidences and confessions I’ve heard that night, it makes me feel not alone….

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