By Lynn Venhaus
Desperation hangs thick in the air in Tennessee Williams’ richly detailed “The
Night of the Iguana,” the remarkable centerpiece to this year’s fourth annual
Tennessee Williams Festival.
At a rundown resort in Mexico, people are there to escape –
or to hide. Everyone has secrets. They can get away, but they can’t run, just
like the big fat iguana that’s tied up offstage.
The setting is not inconsequential. You can tell Cosa Verde
has seen better days, and so have most of these characters. But each has a
story to tell – and those looking for mercy, a glimmer of hope.
In his grand, striking poetic exposition, Williams tackles
a lot here – a former minister who is a tormented soul, three primary women of
different types and temperatures, and an assortment of workers and tourists. He
seizes on how people fare in volatile times.
A group of crass Nazi-sympathizing Germans on holiday stand
out for their gaudiness, and those roles might be tiny, but Williams is crafty
in his characterizations. After all, the play takes place in the early 1940s,
before World War II commandeers everything.
The metaphors are also rampant in this multi-layered
masterpiece. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created such a distinct corner of
the universe that you can practically feel the oppressive heat. Each cabin is
like an isolation pod, mosquito net hanging, a place of solitude and reflection
for some, but for others who feel trapped by their circumstances, a cage.
Dunsi Dai’s scenic design, photo by ProPhotoSTLThe brilliant Jon Ontiveros’ lighting design is a marvel of
moods and atmosphere, emphasizing Williams’ intentions through Dai’s
Ellie Schwetye, whose sound design is always memorable,
layers the outdoor cacophony with lapping ocean waves, which changes to different
noticeable nocturnal noises.
Meticulous director Tom Ocel has contained the sprawling
story to emphasize temptation, loneliness, loss and the despair that comes from
This landmine of human emotions, ready to explode at any
moment, is based on Williams’ 1948 short story, which was then developed into
three acts for a Broadway production in 1961. A Tony nominee for Best Play
(defeated by “A Man for All Seasons”) in 1962, actress Margaret Leighton won Best
Leading Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Hannah Jelkes. Two years later,
it was adapted into a steamy movie, directed by John Huston, that starred
Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon.
The tormented Rev. Shannon (James Andrew Butz, in an
extraordinary performance), who fell from grace in spectacular fashion – or, as
he says: “heresy and fornication – in the same week,” is a self-destructive
shell of a human being. He’s now driving a tour bus. Oh, the irony of escorting
a group of women from a Baptist college for their pleasure.
But at a cheap coastal hotel, they’ve turned against him,
the staff is on edge, and the proprietor is just trying to get through another
day without incidents. LaVonne Byers is Maxine Faulk, the recently widowed
owner who was something in her prime. However, she is now weary of other people’s
drama – but has a soft spot for Shannon, whom she has known a long time. He can
push her buttons, nevertheless. Byers plays this vigorous woman with her
customary precision, turning Maxine into a strong, no-nonsense type whose past
is filled with hard-fought lessons. She tosses off some terrific comical lines,
The brewing tempest grows out of its teacup into a full-blown
Summer Baer and Jim Butz, photo by ProPhotoSTLThe pretty young Charlotte Goodall, 16, has fancied this
mysterious Shannon, and vice-versa, thus resulting in all hell breaking loose
and a serious charge of statutory rape. This is the starting part. Summer Baer
is impressive as the innocent, naïve lass.
As Miss Judith Fellowes, entrusted with Charlotte’s care, Elizabeth
Ann Townsend is all blustery and self-righteous in her contempt for Shannon.
She wants justice, and she is going to get it.
Nisi Sturgis and Harry Weber. Photo by ProPhotoSTLAlong comes the refined Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis), whose
manners belie a living-on-the-edge situation. An artistic woman whose only
source of income is freelance painting and sketch work, she has accompanied her
beloved grandfather, “Nonno” — Jonathan Coffin, a poet. They survive together,
although he is ailing. They are just trying to get by, using whatever means
they can. Harry Weber imbues Nonna with dignity.
For the prickly, mercurial Shannon, Hannah becomes
something of a lifeline. She tries to save his humanity, and her spirit is revived
through their encounters. Williams makes you believe in the power of their
connection — “The magic of the other.” So do the actors — Butz and Sturgis
are stunning in their scenes together.
Butz pretty much raises the bar for every actor in town.
How he spirals out of control and goes through every emotion, depicting Shannon
on the brink of a breakdown, is astonishing. He’s always a robust life-force on
stage, but this portrayal is some of the finest acting we’ve been privileged to
see in St. Louis.
Sturgis, whose measured demeanor is exactly how you imagine
Deborah Kerr in the movie, delivers one of the finest female performances of
the year. She conveys the restraint, compassion and grace of her character
Nisi Sturgis and Jim Butz, Photo by ProPhotoSTLOcel moves the large cast around to the beats of the
fun-and-sun coastal setting, with a sense of foreboding and something’s
off-kilter. Again, the irony of the hellish happenings occurring at such a
Costume Designer Garth Dunbar has a keen eye to distinguish
the personalities through their outfits.
Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay and
Hannah Lee Eisenbath provide lively portraits of the garish, loud Germans oblivious
to anything but their own needs.
In minor roles, Greg Johnston is Jake Latta, Shannon’s
supervisor, and Spencer Sickmann is employee Hank, Victor Mendez is worker
Pedro and Luis Aguilar is worker Pancho.
The crisp stage direction and the ensemble’s commitment to
immerse themselves to tell this story, with all its messy interactions, make
this production stand out.
If last year’s award-winning TWF mainstage show, “A
Streetcar Named Desire,” was a leap of faith, this year’s centerpiece is a masterful
coming-of-age, a major step forward, strengthening Williams’ legacy and continuing
a vibrant tradition.
Williams Festival presents “A Night of the Iguana” May 9 through May 19 at The
Grandel Theatre in the Grand Arts Center. Evening performances Thursday through
Saturday are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday is at 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.twstl.org
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.