By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
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
interpretation.

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
being lost.

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,
too.

The brewing tempest grows out of its teacup into a full-blown
squall.

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
beautifully.

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
slice-of-heaven paradise.

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.

Tennessee
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

The fourth annual Tennessee Williams Festival will celebrate the great American playwright with 10 days of plays, panel discussions and parties in the Grand Arts Center, set for May 9-19.“A Night of the Iguana”The steamy and startling Iguana is one of the most richly textured and dramatically satisfying plays written by Williams. Reverend Shannon has lost his flock, his religion, and has—at the very least— misplaced his sanity and sense of decency. He takes refuge at a rundown resort owned by the lusty and busty Maxine, where they are joined by the beautifully refined but repressed Hannah, and Nonno, her nonagenarian grandfather. These two may be scam artists, but they are artists all the same; as such, they offer some brief hope of redemption.

At the Grandel Theatre, 3160 Grandel Square

Bryan Batt

“Dear Mr. Williams” starts May 10Conceived, written, and performed by Bryan Batt, SAG Award winner (“Mad Men”) and Drama Desk Award nominee (Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard, Cats); directed by Michael Wilson, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award winner (The Orphans’ Home Cycle). The tumultuous—and sometimes treacherous—journey from adolescence to adulthood is one we all must take, but Batt’s one-man tour de force proves that it’s oh so much more fascinating and fun with Tennessee Williams as your guide.

At The Curtain Call Lounge, 527 Grand Blvd.

Kelly Weber, Ellie Schwetye, Julie Layton“A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” Opens May 11Four eccentric and unforgettable women fry chicken, plan a picnic to Creve Coeur Lake, and cope with loneliness and lost dreams in an efficiency apartment on Enright Avenue in the Central West End circa the mid-1930s.

Williams gives us more laughs than usual, but no less poetry or poignancy.

At the Grandel Theatre, 3160 Grandel Square

Panels are part of TWF“Conversations with Tennessee” May 11Three panels address aspects of the author’s life and work. Each will begin with a brief performance of material from Tennessee Williams’s letters, journals, or other writing, followed by a discussion between artists and scholars. Moderated by Tom Mitchell, panelists will include Melissa Wolfe, Gregory Carr, Jesse Munoz, David Kaplan, Tim Ocel, Sophia Brown, and Henry Schvey.

At The Dark Room, 3160 Grandel Square

Ken Page

“Tennessee Williams Tribute 2019” May 12Join us as we celebrate the culmination of the opening weekend of the Tennessee Williams Festival. In poetry, prose, and song, this tribute reading reveals Williams’ take on those who are “waiting for something to happen” and those for whom “everything has happened already”.

Ken Page hosts an entertaining evening presented by a collection of Festival artists, curated by noted Williams scholar, Tom Mitchell. Stay after the performance to mix with other Festival goers and artists, as The Dark Room hosts us for drinks and light hors d’ oeuvres.

At The Dark Room, 3160 Grandel Square

Tennesee’s gravesite in Calvary Cemetery

Bus Tour May 19Retrace the roots of Tennesse Williams’ formative years. From attending high school at Soldan and University City High, to studying at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Washington University, to working downtown and exploring the city’s rich cultural institutions – Tennessee Williams’ classic works were influenced by his coming of age in St. Louis. Hosted with immense wit and charm by Williams enthusiasts, Brian Welch and Dan McGuire

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.twstl.org

With the sort of clarity and theatrical density that only the two-hander can achieve, the season of exclusively two-character plays will journey through our most closely complex relationships: Mentor and Apprentice; Husband and wife; Mothers and Child.

Our 2019-20 season:

“Fifty Words” by Michael Weller

Directed by Associate Artistic Director John Pierson

September 20 – October 6, 2019 

While their nine-year-old son is away for the night on his first sleepover, Adam and Jan have an evening alone together, their first in years. Adam’s attempt to seduce his wife before he leaves on business the next day begins a suspenseful nightlong roller-coaster ride of revelation, rancor, passion and humor that explores a modern-day marriage on the verge of either a breakup or deepening love and understanding.

“Mr. Weller is a bold and productive dramatist.” —NY Times. 

“The best thing about Weller’s play is that it offers no easy answers for making a relationship work. Its shades of gray are less than comforting but realistic as husband and wife struggle to describe and resolve their complex feelings for each other.” —International Herald Tribune.

 

“A Life in the Theatre” by David Mamet 

Directed by John Contini

December 6 – December 22, 2019 

 Starring Founder/Artistic Director William Roth and Spencer Sickmann (Farragut North, The Feast, LaBute Festival)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed-The-Plow” takes us into the lives of two actors: John, young and rising into the first flush of his success; and Robert, older, anxious, and beginning to wane. Their short, spare, and increasingly raw exchanges reveal the estrangement of youth from age and the wider, inevitable and endless cycle of life, in and out of the theatre.

“A comedy about the artifice of acting… It is also about the artifice of living… An evening of pure theatre.” – The New York Times

“A comic masterpiece.” – New York Daily News

“The warmest and often the funniest play in town.” – New York Post

“[Mamet has] the most acute ear for dialogue of any American writer since J.D. Salinger.” – Village Voiceb

“Annapurna” by Sharr White

Directed by Associate Artistic Director Annamaria Pileggi

February 14- March 1, 2020

After twenty years apart, Emma tracks Ulysses to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere for a final reckoning. What unfolds is a visceral and profound meditation on love and loss with the simplest of theatrical elements: two people in one room. A breathtaking story about the longevity of love.

“Sharr White’s ANNAPURNA is a comic and gripping duet…The closer [the characters] get to understanding what drove them apart, the more engrossed we become in watching them draw together.” —San Francisco Chronicle. 

“What if you had experienced the defining moment of your life—but couldn’t remember it? Sharr White’s remarkable two-person play ANNAPURNA…deals with just that dilemma, as well as other imponderables such as the vagaries of love and the philosophical clarity of impending death.” —LA Times.

 “…at the heart of each character is a lyricism that simply can’t be suffocated. Sharr White has created two fine and ferociously damaged people caught in the emotional whirlpool of not being able to live with or without each other.” —Huffington Post. 

“White’s poetry is endearing and quite lovely, and his dialogue is sharp, funny and consistently very honest…”—BroadwayWorld.com.

“Comfort” by Neil LaBute

Directed by Associate Artistic Director Annamaria Pileggi

April 17-May 3, 2020

A new play by STLAS friend and associate Neil LaBute in which a successful author and her son meet after some time apart and revisit their troubled relationship. What’s at stake? Whether or not the instinctive bond between mother and child can survive not just the past, but also two new book deals.

“Mr. LaBute is writing some of the freshest and most illuminating American dialogue to be heard anywhere these days.” —NY Times. 

“No contemporary writer has more astutely captured the brutality in everyday conversation and behavior: That kind of insight requires sensitivity and soul-searching.” —USA Today.

 “It is tight, tense and emotionally true, and it portrays characters who actually seem part of the world that the rest of us live in.” —Time. 

ABOUT ST. LOUIS ACTORS’ STUDIO St. Louis Actors’ Studio is one of the leading professional theatres in the St. Louis. area, producing a four-show season of plays at our 97-seat Gaslight Theatre. STLAS collaborates with renown director, screenwriter and playwright Neil LaBute to produce the LaBute New Theater Festival each July in St. Louis and each January in New York City. The festival is a one-act play competition for emerging professionals and high-school writers.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
What price glory? St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s savvy state-of-play production of “Farragut
North” sketches a fascinating world that we have only glimpsed as it escalates
to a fever pitch every four years.

Beau Willimon’s insider look at cutthroat politics on the
presidential primary election campaign trail premiered in 2008, and is named
for a metro stop in D.C. He wrote it as a Juilliard Playwriting Fellow, loosely
based on his experiences working for Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a one-time
frontrunner in the 2004 presidential race.

The playwright, a 1995 John Burroughs School graduate, first
had experiences on Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns. So,
this territory is obviously in his wheelhouse.

Willimon’s sharp commentary on backroom politics, 21st
Century-style, remains topical even though it came out over a decade ago. As sharks
circle, anticipating the Iowa Caucus kickoff to the 2008 U.S. presidential
primary elections, this whip-smart drama pulsates with passion and purpose.

Director Wayne Salomon shrewdly exposes the underbelly of
political operators like he’s playing in a championship chess tournament. As he
tautly maneuvers the manipulators, we see the designs, desires and dreams of
every character through what is being said and not said, while others lie in
wait, like a cobra. Who will survive, thrive or take a dive?

A crackerjack cast smoothly delivers Willimon’s clever
wordplay and penetrating dialogue, nimbly rattling off statistics, polls and
facts with confidence. Don’t worry – it’s not just a numbers game, for there is
enough human drama to keep us riveted.

Salomon achieves an immediate lived-in authenticity. Staged
under the harsh glare of artificial lighting, in drab hotel rooms on the Iowa campaign
trail, this nondescript set by Patrick Huber fittingly captures the dullness.

Despite the banality, you can feel the drive of the participants
during this dreary January period because it is the first major contest of a
very long season. Those who don’t do well tend to drop out in the coming days
and weeks after Iowa.

Peter Mayer and Spencer Sickman in “Farragut North” at St. Louis Actors Studio. Photo by Patrick HuberEnter the political operatives on the same side, Spencer
Sickmann (Stephen Bellamy) and David Wassilak (Paul Zara) in the throes of
battle, with the opposition represented by Tom Duffy (Peter Mayer). These top-tier,
highly intelligent actors bounce off each other with a tight rhythm, unleashing
diatribes with remarkable force and skill.

The modern political landscape may indeed be a circus, but
the people who play in that minefield are as fascinating as any Shakespeare
concocted.

We meet our polished practitioners of spin in a ubiquitous
hotel bar, trash-talking and regaling each other with stories of glory days,
fueled by alcohol and lust for power.

A few characters are more transparent than others, but Willimon
is quite cunning in his introductions of hotshot press secretary Bellamy, his
boss/mentor Zara and the bright-eyed new kid Ben, played with eager-beaver wide-eyed
enthusiasm by Joshua Parrack.

Bellamy is a likable smarty-pants whose cockiness just may
be his downfall, but how he’s usually one step ahead is impressive. Sickmann is
stunning in this labor-intensive endeavor, for he is on stage in every scene,
and as the smartest guy in the room, the passages he must convey are long. But
he does so with great zeal.

Wassilak’s character is the wild card here, and as he
reveals his clever string-pulls, it’s quite a feat, a new facet of the actor’s
work.

Mayer’s character is the necessary instigator, and he
quickly nails this slick master whose scenes are few but his influence looms
large.

Into this mix comes a major media outlet. Shannon Nara is Ida,
a New York Times reporter who assimilates herself as “one of the guys.” She
does what journalists are paid to do – network and observe. Nara projects a
smart, seasoned professional who knows how to meet the demands of her work –
and not show her cards.

The other female role, Molly, is a young, very ambitious,
starry-eyed campaign worker who is committed to getting what she wants. This character
feels the most cliched, forced. But Hollyn Gayle does what she can by showing
her sly determination.

Photo of Spencer Sickmann and Hollyn Gayle by Patrick HuberAs the layers are peeled back on some truly fascinating
characters – ones who are far more motivated than we initially think — get
ready for sneaky turns in this soul-sucking journey.
Nevertheless, one character represents the ideology of successful political
candidates, and that is a Latino restaurant server working at his family’s
place. Luis Aguilar earnestly professes hope that his chosen candidate can do
the things he says, that can fulfill the hopes and dreams of Americans who want
opportunities.

We are reminded of the democratic process, putting the ‘why’
into perspective, while the rest of the play is about the who, what and how.
After all, a candidate who gets people fired up is always the goal.

It doesn’t matter that this play occurs before widespread
use of smart phones and social media, for Willimon’s sobering account of modern
election campaigns still has the same core that marks all cautionary tales: the
games ambitious people play when stakes are high.

Therefore, this timely staging has as much in common with “Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington” idealism as it does with “The Sweet Smell of Success”
cynicism and the real-world optics created by Nixon’s dirty tricksters,
perfected by political consultant/absolute power master planner Karl Rove and the
media cross-over — evil divide-and-conquer architect Roger Ailes.
 
Even though Americans tend to not like watching the sausage being made, this
riveting piece gives us precise characters worth getting to know.

Willimon went on to develop an American version of the
British inside-politics series “House of Cards” for Netflix and served as showrunner
for four seasons. And he received an Oscar nomination for adapting “Farragut
North” into the George Clooney-Grant Heslov film “The Ides of March” in 2011.

Therefore, it’s interesting to see where it all began. This is far from the last word in politics, but if Willimon is keeping tabs, I want to see that outtake. And Salomon, also responsible for sound design, has well-chosen his opening and closing songs as apt punctuation.

“Farragut North” is presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio Feb. 8 – 24 at The Gaslight Theatre, 360 N. Boyle Ave, St. Louis. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are available through Metrotix.com For more information, visit www.stlas.org.