By Lynn Venhaus
It’s one thing to see a play; it’s another thing just to listen. A whole new world opens in your imagination, and the cultural icon Tennessee Williams is perfectly suited for such an experience.
To make its three remarkable radio presentations accessible, the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has been extended through Nov.21-22, and you will be captivated by these three works anew. They are free to listen to at www.1073.org and www.twstl.org.
Williams has such a distinctive voice, and you hear his words interpreted with devotion and insight. The performances by the all-star cast assembled this year brings the works to a new level.
Through this fresh and innovative way, the festival continues to pay homage to St. Louis’ greatest playwright, who lived here during his formative years and was greatly influenced by this region.
All three works are richly rewarding aural and theatrical experiences:
“The Glass Menagerie,” a beautifully rendered two-hour production of Williams’ most personal play and one of his greatest and most famous, now through Nov. 22.
“You Lied to Me About Centralia,” a delightful one-act by playwright John Guare, who imagines what took place after The Gentleman Caller left the Wingfields to meet his fiancé, Betty, now through Nov. 21.
“Glass,” an intriguing new play by Michael Aman that imagines the actress playing Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” clashing with Tennessee when it opens in Chicago before it heads to Broadway, now through Nov. 21.
As always, stay after for a few moments to listen to Williams’ scholar-in-residence Tom Mitchell for his insight into each work. It’s interesting and informative, and really adds to the festival’s mission. They want us to know Williams intimately, and it shows. You can also take an audio tour of Williams’ St. Louis and hear education panels on his work.
The fifth annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was going to take us to Italy this spring, showcasing “The Rose Tattoo” and other nuggets from Williams, who was happy soaking up European la dolce vita in a good stretch of his chaotic life.
Then the pandemic hit. The coronavirus public health crisis forced our regional theaters to cancel. Instead, Artistic Director Carrie Houk pivoted with two different sets of programming on radio, partnering with Classic 107.3 FM.
First, this summer, a divine series of Williams’ richly textured one-acts that showcased his yearning and his desire to fit in, all in his distinctive word play. The images of his characters with their fanciful stories were vivid, as were the Southern locations. The attention to detail was strong and the acting talent sublime.
All those engaging qualities have returned with “En Evant!” which means “forward.” We’re moving on, and Houk has discussed the fragility accompanying this year strengthening us in different ways. Williams was a fragile soul, but he also had a strength about him, so necessary to survive in his personal world. A previous season was built around “The Magic of Others,” and this year’s fest also has that aspect – the outsider, the guy not like the others.
In the memory play “The Glass Menagerie,” precious Laura, who is based on Tom’s fragile sister Rose, has too many self-doubts and anxieties to fit in, although she tries. Her inner world is soothed by glass figurines.
Glass – who knew 70 some years later this family’s themes of wanting to be normal, wanting to feel something, and not wanting to be mired in the past, in the fanciful world their mother has clung to all these years, would take on more significance throughout the decades
The remarkably poised Elizabeth Teeter, showing her emotional range, will break your heart as Rose.
Brenda Curran is a sympathetic Amanda, although truly a pathetic maternal figure in the pantheon of great mother roles.
She contrasts well with Teeter and Bradley James Tejeda as the protective Tom (Tennessee’s alter-ego).
Tejeda, who is also in “Glass” and was in several of the one-acts this summer, is pitch-perfect in his Williams’ roles. He’s the MVP of 2020. It is a perfect match, like Olivier and Shakespeare, and his vocal work is outstanding. I could listen to him read the phone book.
But that just-right comfortable Southern drawl enhances the character’s development as he draws us in to what Tom is going through – or in “Glass,” what Tennessee is. He’s bursting to get out of town to begin the life he imagines for himself.
He smoothly presents these lived-in characters so we can identify right away. And Williams, ultimately a tragic figure in his own life, is so transparent about his thoughts and feelings that we have an instant attachment.
Chaunery Kingsford, who was in the stunning “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 2018, plays the Gentleman Caller with the right mix of concern and confusion.
Directed by Brian Hohlfeld, a St. Louis native who knows how creative passions will take someone away for their journey, understands the Wingfields. His version is a tidy two hours and hits all the feelings, emphasizing what isn’t said is as potent as what is.
This play takes on new meaning every time I dig in, and it’s never the same experience. If you haven’t read it since high school, listen here – it’s transformative.
Home, that running Williams’ theme, is used by Guare in “You Lied to Me About Centralia,” featuring the tremendous power of Chauncy Thomas as Jim and Julia Crump as Betty. Julia, who played this part when the TWFest produced it for the Grand Center Theatre Crawl several years ago, is well-suited to play Williams’ roles. She’s convincing as driven Betty, who is immediately defensive for taking a trip to Granite City to see an uncle. She has ulterior motives, which she spills during her conversation with Jim. Chauncy, one of the most powerful actors on stage during his years in St. Louis, exercises a new muscle here – only his voice, and it’s no less effective.
Directed by Rayme Cornell, this play illuminates the themes of “The Glass Menagerie” in a fascinating way. Just think about how a step or two in another direction could change your life.
“Glass” is interesting in its exploration of personalities and artistic temperament. With Kari Ely playing the diva Laurette Taylor taking on the role of Amanda Wingfield, you can picture her condescending looks and withering stares. And then Tejeda gets in the skin of burgeoning artist Tennessee Williams. This duet is directed by Gary Wayne Barker, a solid veteran on the St. Louis scene.
Ely, an accomplished actress in St. Louis, is flamboyant as a near-has been who wants to be famous again. Will playing Amanda produce the results she seeks? Will Williams get what he wants with his first feature-length play? All conjecture, of course, but Ely and Tejeda are convincing playing these desperate people – one on the way up and one on the way down. This one-act is 90 minutes.
The vocal work here lulls us into a comfortable place. It’s fun to hear these journeys as these performers create pictures in our minds.
One of the most soothing voices is contributed by Ken Page, who is a masterful speaker. He is the festival’s host and introduces each show with his silky vocals.
So, tune in, turn up the volume, and let the magic of theater take you to new (and old) places.
Presenting sponsor is Emerson.
Donations are appreciated.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.