Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Two-Character Play
Michelle Hand is Clairea faded dramatic actress on tour with her brother Felice (Joe Hanrahan). They're at the end of their careers, in that familiar Williams-esque mood of delicate desperation, both on stage and off, winding down their former glory in a strange memory play, set in a once-grand family home, now haunted by a ghastly crime from their childhood.
But it's an unexpectedly self-aware, often uproarious Tennessee Williams that flips back and forth between on-stage and back-stage realities, under the splendid direction of Sarah Whitney. Two actors (and their characters) shift between the horrifically honest and the wickedly stagey, within a nanosecond. We all go hurtling down one hall of mirrors after another as the characters flicker between lyrical hopelessness and snarling comedy.
It's almost as if the great playwright himself suddenly realized the parody to be mined in his own works, and subverted his trademark style all into an amalgam of Noises Off and Waiting for Godot. I like to think that the whole genre of comedy (what we now call comedy) came along after the invention of tragedy, simply because too many bad tragedies were being produced back around 230 BCE. In that sense, comedy may have become inevitable. Something similar might have happened to Williams in the 1960s, perhaps after seeing one too many lesser productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, inspiring this laugh out loud encounter with darkest existentialism.
Ms. Hand as Claire begins the evening in a far room upstage, slowly applying make-up. But it's done in such a strange, listing manner, that we suddenly apprehend her situation: an actress who can no longer stay in the moment, or even upright, as the call approaches.
Mr. Hanrahan as Felice manages to keep her on track, in spite of it all, most of the time. But the drama lies in how often her terrors get the better of her, and of him, too. The whole thing bubbles and roils to such high passions that a bygone family tragedy (involving a murder-suicide) starkly threatens to repeat itself. Inside their haunted family mansion/rundown theater is the safety of familiar Williams themes of loss and humiliation and broken dreams. But outside is the abrogation of all known realities, in either freedom or death.
It's just stunning, in this production, and apparently one of Williams' own favorite plays, too. Ms. Hand and Mr. Hanrahan skate along in complete realism one moment, then throw on flouncy, phony Blanche DuBois style Southern accents as needed. Then, gradually, the line between reality and theatrics is obliterated, taking us all down the rabbit hole together.
Part of the fun is the little "ping" in Ms. Hand's consciousness, as the play shifts back and forth between the Streetcar-like scenario, and the utter tragedy of two actors at the end of the line. Each time the game shifts in or out of the play-within-the-play, a tiny crackle of excitement (or dread) is visible in her eyes, as a different reality is about to unfold. The two actors are like George and Martha from Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, one devising games for the other merely to stave off utter madness.
Extended through June 4, 2016, from the recent first annual Tennessee Williams Festival, at the Winter Opera, 2322 Marconi Ave. For more information, www.midnightcompany.com.