Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Small Craft Warnings
Tennessee Williams Festival
Review by Richard T. Green


Magan Wiles, Peter Mayer, and Elizabeth Townsend
Photo by Ride Hamilton
The prestigious Tennessee Williams Festival in St. Louis is looking just as great, now in its second year.

But there's a sort of back-of-the-mind mystery surrounding Small Craft Warnings, like the suspense you feel when you're watching one of those old movies where they slowly, dramatically remove the bandages from the face of a woman in a hospital. Will she be a goddess, or a monster, or (in this case) will she even be there at all?

Actually you might wonder, as the speeches unwind like wrappings, and tawdry action unfolds, "is it even going to turn out to be a play? Or is Small Craft Warnings just the dimmed and trembling reverberation of a style we can't forget? Will it turn out to be a distillation of Williams' life's work, or its desiccation?"

Like that woman in the movie, slowly unveiled in her hospital bed, there are bloodstains on the wrappings in Small Craft Warnings, in the wounded monologues of most of the men and women. But a kind of beauty is revealed, eventually, for most of them, as the last traces of spiritual trauma fall away, revealing a martyred sort of glory.

Williams himself compared the situation to a tragic birthing trauma, from where he sat in the original production: at a bar stool, playing an alcoholic doctor on stage. And here, noted Williams impersonator Jeremy Lawrence returns to the festival in that same role, adding a luxuriant, giddy layer of something—legacy? lineage?—to the proceedings.

And, thanks to director Richard Corley, there are living souls underneath it all in Tennessee Williams' somewhat obscure play from 1970. The playwright developed Small Craft Warnings from an earlier work, Confessional, but this expanded work didn't get performed Off-Broadway until 1972.

The women of Small Craft Warnings, like most Williams women, represent all our fears: with fine performances here by Elizabeth Townsend as Leona, a hairdresser who staves off loneliness, searching for life in late-night bars; and Magan Wiles as Violet, a young woman who seeks out her own reckless death, in madness. And the men are like most Williams men, in the way they turn away from their women and their fears, in foolishness or nobility, or both. Each lives out a faintly regal Everyman tragedy, where the royal purple comes out in the text.

But they are all revealed as in a dream, in monologues, between drunken clashes, their faces floating in hazy red or pink light, as some very expensive supporting actors stare off into oblivion in the background. The whole structure of Small Craft Warnings may seem contrived in that sense, a lot of atmosphere in search of story. But it's not very different from the way we remember our own barroom nights; unmoored from dramatic devices like dying patriarchs or a Southern culture-clash, or even a simple coming of age story, these very Williams-esque men and women are free to explore their own psychological frontiers. But it's a bit like Waiting for Godot crash-landed in the late night hours of the sexual revolution.

There is no tormented leading man, except for all of them, in miniature. Peter Mayer is the saloon-keeper Monk, the show's reluctant authority figure; Eric Dean White is an over-the-hill gigolo, stumbling up against the rude truth of his body and soul; and Jared Sanz-Agero is a short-order cook (these are all big-name actors in St. Louis, by the way), with Ms. Wiles as a young woman submerged in her own ghastly fate. But thanks to that elegant style of writing, you could just as easily transpose them into a very different socio-economic key to play a more sympathetic version of Henry VIII and one of his wives, on a very bad day.

I sometimes have to explain that I'm really not joking about this sort of thing. There is a strange nobility in almost every Williams character, with their invisible maladies and disbelieving companions, even when they only briefly pass in review, as in Small Craft Warnings. But it's also why we go back to Tennessee Williams again and again, even when the titles and lineage are in doubt: his people are all Romanovs, without portfolio.

Through May 14, 2017, at the .ZACK performance space on Locust just west of Compton, north of St. Louis University. For more information visit www.twstl.org.

Cast
Leona: Elizabeth Townsend*
Doc: Jeremy Lawrence*
Bill: Eric Dean White*
Monk: Peter Mayer*
Violet: Magan Wiles*
Quentin: John Bratkowski*
Bobby: Spencer Milford*
Steve: Jared Sanz-Agero
Tony the Cop: Richard Schicker

Crew
Stage Manager: Kathryn Ballard*
Production Manager: Pamela Reckamp
Casting: Carrie Houk, CSA
Set Designer: Dunsi Dai
Costume Designer: Robin McGee
Lighting Designer: Michael Sullivan
Sound Design: Michael Perkins
Technical Director: Joe Novak
Assistant Stage Manager, Wardrobe Supervisor: Bonny Green
Props: Annina Christensen
Design Assistant: Ali Strelchun
Master Electrician: Tanner Douglas

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association


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