:By Lynn Venhaus
The brilliant work, troubled lives and unique personal journeys of two titans of American literature – Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams — are explored in the revealing “Truman and Tennessee; An Intimate Conversation.”

Truman Capote and Williams were gay Southerners who achieved life-changing literary success around the same time, in the late 1940s. As this illuminating documentary shows, they were friends – and rivals – for 40 years. They reveal truths about each other in conversations captured here.

Their professional and personal lives were fascinating, caught the attention of the glitterati in the 1950s and 1960s, and influenced generations, despite crippling addictions that tragically resulted in their deaths.

Because of their inner turmoil, there is a haunting melancholy to their appearances on talk shows – with the erudite hosts Dick Cavett and David Frost, shown here.

Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland has taken an innovative approach to sharing a wealth of archival material, focusing on typewritten and hand-written pages, old photographs, magazine excerpts and selected scenes from their movie adaptations.

“A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “Suddenly, Last Summer” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are among the Tennessee Williams’ films. Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” are shown, featuring interesting backstories.

To add a heightened reality to their personal letters and journals, Vreeland enlisted actors Jim Parsons (Capote) and Zachary Quinto (Williams) to interpret Truman and Tennessee’s wit, wisdom and flair for the dramatic.

Parsons and Quinto, while most famous for their screen work, have had successful appearances on Broadway, notably together in the Tony-winning play revival of “The Boys in the Band.” Using just the right tone and cadence, they infuse this work with an emotional resonance and demonstrate how both authors wrote like they talked, with their distinct voices.

Capote and Williams’ cultural impact is emphasized, and while the dual portraits are informative, what is lacking is some perspective. Adding other talking heads would have been beneficial in establishing their place in the 20th century.

Capote, who was born in New Orleans but moved to Alabama when he was 2, and Williams, who was born in Mississippi but moved to St. Louis when he was 8, were impacted by lonely childhoods and the places they lived.

The documentary isn’t long – 86 minutes, but the wealth of material covered is indeed impressive. And revisiting these gifted men’s most memorable works is a rather satisfying undertaking.

“Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation” is a documentary
directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland.
It has voice work by Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. The film is not rated and has a run time of 1 hour and 26 minutes. The film is available for viewing at www.kinomarquee.com, through Kino Lorber. It opened at Plaza Frontenac Cinema on June 25 for a week.

Lynn’s Grade: B

Imagine “The Glass Menagerie” performed where it first began.

A site-specific production at the historic “Tennessee,” the Westminster Place apartment  in the Central West End where it all began, will be part of the 6th annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis this summer. Brian Hohlfeld will direct.

The event will include the TW Tribute: St. Louis Woman, Scholars Panels, and a Workshop/Reading of “Why Does Desdemona Love the Moor,” which will be presented prior to its Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival engagement, to be directed by Thomas Mitchell.

Author Henry Schvey will sign his book, “Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams.” The event will feature a conversation with Schvey, a professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University. He wrote the 2011 book, “Tennessee Williams at 100: From Washington University to the Wider World.”

Tennessee Williams Scholar Thomas Mitchell will lead a Tennessee Williams Walking Tour of the Central West End. From 1918 to 1922, Williams lived with his family at 4633 Westminster. He attended Soldan High School. He later moved to University City and studied at Washington University.

An opening weekend Block Party is also planned.

Additional productions, events and full casts will be announced at the beginning of July.

Certified with Missouri Arts Safe, the entire festival team is fully vaccinated.

About the Festival

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was established in 2016 by Carrie Houk, the award-winning producer, casting director, actor, and educator.  The Festival, which aims to enrich the cultural life of St. Louis by producing an annual theater festival and other artistic events that celebrate the artistry and life of Tennessee Williams, was named the 2019 Arts Startup of the Year by the Arts & Entertainment Council.

In 2014, Houk produced Williams’ “Stairs to the Roof” with such success that the ongoing annual Festival was established. The inaugural Festival was themed “Tennessee Williams: The St. Louis Years,” followed by “The Magic of the Other” in 2017 and “The French Quarter Years” in 2018. The 2019 festival featured “Night of the Iguana” and “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.” As the years have passed, the awards have mounted. In the last two years, the St. Louis Theater Circle has given them 12 awards. The Festival has attracted thousands to its readings, panel discussions, concerts, exhibitions, and productions.

About Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in 1911 in Mississippi, Williams moved to St. Louis at age seven, when his father was made an executive with the International Shoe Company (where the City Museum and the Last Hotel are now located).

He lived here for more than two decades, attending Washington University, working at the International Shoe Company, and producing his first plays at local theaters. He credited his sometimes difficult experiences in St. Louis for the deeply felt poetic essence that permeates his artistry. When asked later in life when he left St. Louis, he replied, “I never really left.”

Most people are familiar with the famous works that have garnered multiple Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards and Academy Awards, such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer.

He also wrote hundreds of additional plays, stories, essays, and poems, many of which are only now seeing the light of day as his estate permits greater access. He is today considered by many leading authorities to be America’s greatest playwright.

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:

Bradley James Tejeda

“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

Elizabeth Teeter

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.

Chauncy Thomas

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.

Julia Crump

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.

Kari Ely

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.

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis (TWSTL) will increase its reach this summer with a new radio show. “Something Spoken: Tennessee Williams On the Air” is set to launch on July 11. The program will air every other Saturday at 5 p.m. on Classic 107.3 FM. The festival decided to embark on this new venture because “It is important now to unify, elevate and enrich humanity during this very challenging year,” explains Carrie Houk, Executive Artistic Director of TWSTL.

Each episode of “Something Spoken: Tennessee Williams On the Air” will consist of fully produced Williams’ one-act plays along with interviews with scholars, directors and actors. Specific details of each broadcast will be posted on the websites of both Classic 107.3 (classic1073.org) and TWSTL (twstl.org).

Ken Page

Broadway legend and St. Louisan Ken Page will narrate and noted Williams scholar Tom Mitchell will offer commentary on each episode. Performers will include: Nisi Sturgis; Rayme Cornell; J. Samuel Davis; Bob Harvey; Anita Jackson; Tony Merritt II; Elizabeth Teeter; Bradley Tejeda; Rachel Tibbits; Donathan Walters; Kelley Weber; Donna Weinsting and Maggie Wininger.  Brian Hohlfeld, David Kaplan and Tim Ocel will be directing.

“The peak of my virtuosity was in the one-act plays.

Some of which are like firecrackers on a rope.” – Tennessee Williams

“Williams felt that one-acts were his strongest format,” Houk points out. “He started out in St. Louis writing one-act plays, and one of his biggest breaks was winning a competition sponsored by the Group Theater in New York—the first time he signed his name as ‘Tennessee’ rather than ‘Tom.’  He wrote more than 70 throughout his career—sometimes edgy, often experimental, and always infused with his unsurpassed poetry.  Many of them have been presented at the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.”

“Something Spoken: Tennessee Williams On the Air” will be sponsored by Mary Strauss, Jane and Bruce P. Robert Charitable Foundation, Ted Wight, John Russell and Terry Schnuck, with more patrons to be announced in the coming weeks.

TWSTL’s reboot of their Fifth Annual Festival this fall will focus on Williams’ youth and time spent with The Mummers, an offbeat St. Louis theatre company that tried out a number of his early plays and is immortalized in Williams essay “Something Wild.” As long as conditions remain safe to produce, “Tennessee Williams: Something Wild” will run October 22 through November 1 at The Link Auditorium (thelinkauditorium.org), formerly The Wednesday Club and the theatre where The Mummers performed. 

About the Festival

Star on Walk of Fame in the Delmar Loop

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was established in 2016 by Carrie Houk, the award-winning producer, casting director, actor, and educator.   The Festival, which aims to enrich the cultural life of St. Louis by producing an annual theater festival and other artistic events that celebrate the artistry and life of Tennessee Williams, was named the 2019 Arts Startup of the Year by the Arts & Entertainment Council.

In 2014, Houk produced Williams’ Stairs to the Roof with such success that the on- going annual Festival was established. The inaugural Festival was themed “Tennessee Williams: The St. Louis Years,” followed by “The Magic of the Other” in 2017 and “The French Quarter Years” in 2018. The 2019 festival featured Night of the Iguana and A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. As the years have passed, the awards have mounted. Last year’s St. Louis Theater Circle gave them eleven nominations and seven awards, and this year’s seven nominations garnered four more awards. The Festival has attracted thousands to its readings, panel discussions, concerts, exhibitions, and productions.

Lead sponsorship of the festival is provided by Emerson.  The Festival is also funded in part by Mary Strauss, Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, The Whitaker Foundation, Regional Arts Commission, the Missouri Arts Council, Missouri Humanities Council, Trio Foundation of St Louis and the Arts and Education Council.

About Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams drawing by Al Hirschfeld

Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in 1911 in Mississippi, Williams moved to St. Louis at age seven, when his father was made an executive with the International Shoe Company (where the City Museum and the Last Hotel are now located). He lived here for more than two decades, attending Washington University, working at the International Shoe Company, and producing his first plays at local theaters. He credited his sometimes difficult experiences in St. Louis for the deeply felt poetic essence that permeates his artistry. When asked later in life when he left St. Louis, he replied, “I never really left.” Most people are familiar with the famous works that have garnered multiple Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards and Academy Awards, such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer. He also wrote hundreds of additional plays, stories, essays, and poems, many of which are only now seeing the light of day as his estate permits greater access. He is today considered by many leading authorities to be America’s greatest playwright.

About Classic 107.3

Classic 107.3, “The Voice for the Arts in St. Louis”, broadcasts at 107.3 FM and on KNOU 96.3 HD2 with a mission to support the cultural landscape in the St. Louis region through programming and outreach efforts. Classic 107.3 plays a variety of music from classical to jazz, opera to blues, Broadway and more, and features local programming including the “Slatkin Shuffle”, hosted by conductor Leonard Slatkin, and Musical Ancestries™, designed to educate school-aged children about world music. In addition, the station airs interviews with artists, musicians, creators and performers, bringing their stories and events to the attention of the St. Louis community. Classic 107.3 is a non-profit station, receiving support from listeners as well as organizations like PNC, the William T. Kemper Foundation and others. More information, as well as live streaming, archived interviews, and podcasts can be found at www.classic1073.org.

The multi-award-winning Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis proudly announces its Fifth Annual Festival for Thursday, May 7 through Sunday, May 17, 2020, headlining The Rose Tattoo.  A preview performance of the play is set  for Thursday, May 7, with May 8 as the official opening night. There will be more than a dozen separate elements, scheduled so that attendees may attend every one during  the eleven-day run, all held in the Grand Center Arts District and on The Hill.

The theme of the 2020 Festival is “Tennessee Williams & Italy.” Williams frequently traveled to Italy, recalling in his Memoirs: “As soon as I crossed the Italian border, my health and my life seemed to be magically restored. There was the sun and there were the smiling Italians.” He wrote to his grandfather, “It is difficult to tear myself away from Italy which is the nearest to heaven that I have ever been, the people so friendly, gentle and gracious and the days so tranquil and sunny.”

In that spirit the Festival will mount a stunning production of The Rose Tattoo, set in a resilient community of Sicilian immigrants on the Gulf Coast near New Orleans.

Executive Artistic Director Carrie Houk has consulted extensively with our region’s Italian-American community to ensure their engagement and to provide authenticity.

Festival highlights include:

▪  Williams’ Tony award-winning masterpiece The Rose Tattoo, which is currently enjoying a triumphant revival on Broadway. The Rose Tattoo will be staged at The Grandel Theatre.

▪   A new collection of Williams’ one-act plays, The St. Louis Rooming House Plays, will provide an immersive experience in Grand Center’s historic Stockton House, where audience members will move from room to room and play to play. Previous versions of this remarkable theatrical experience have been some of the hardest-to-get tickets in town.

▪  An academic series, “Tennessee Williams and his Midwest Experiences,” will bring noted scholars and historians from around the world to discuss how Williams’ life in the Midwest influenced his later life and his works. As audience members will see, his life events in the Midwest permeate his works, and are even directly relevant to his Italian experiences.

▪  A variety of special events including: Tennessee Williams Bus Tour; La Dolce Vita Pool Party at the Last Hotel (formerly the International Shoe Company where Tennessee Williams worked); a staged reading of Glass (which imagines what transpired between Tennessee Williams and lead actress Laurette Taylor on the opening night of The Glass Menagerie) by Michael Aman; Amor Perdido, composed of Williams works that are new to the stage, from the University of Illinois; screenings of Italian-themed The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Boom; “TW Jam”, a late-night jam of poetry, monologues   and music; “Tennessee Williams Tribute” at Guido’s on The Hill; the “Williams Playwriting Initiative;” panels, parties, conversation, and much more.

“We are proud that, in five years, the Tennessee Williams Festival has become one of St. Louis’ most widely attended and anticipated cultural events,” said Houk, the Festival’s founder. “Last year, our attendance soared and we were showered with awards. In our fifth season, we aspire to go even further.”

Lead sponsorship of the festival is provided by Emerson.  The Festival is also funded in part by Mary Strauss, Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, The Whitaker Foundation, Regional Arts Commission, the Missouri Arts Council, Missouri Humanities Council, Trio Foundation of St Louis and the Arts and Education Council.

Tickets will go on sale March 1 through Metrotix and at the Fox box office.

For more information, including parking, food, hotels, etc., please contact Helene Estes at [email protected] For media inquiries, please contact Marla Stoker Ballenger at [email protected] or at (314)-997-5525.

About the Festival

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was established in 2016 by Carrie Houk, the award-winning producer, casting director, actor, and educator.   

The Festival, which aims to enrich the cultural life of St. Louis by producing an annual theater festival and other artistic events that celebrate the artistry and life of Tennessee Williams, was named the 2019 Arts Startup of the Year by the Arts & Entertainment Council.

In 2014, Houk produced Williams’ Stairs to the Roof with such success that the on- going annual Festival was established. The inaugural Festival was themed “Tennessee Williams: The St. Louis Years,” followed by “The Magic of the Other” in 2017 and “The French Quarter Years” in 2018. The 2019 festival featured Night of the Iguana and A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. As the years have passed, the awards have mounted. Last year’s St. Louis Theater Circle gave them eleven nominations and seven awards, and has nominated them for seven more awards this year. The Festival has attracted thousands to its readings, panel discussions, concerts, exhibitions, and productions.

Tennessee Williams

About Tennessee Williams

Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in 1911 in Mississippi, Williams moved to St. Louis at age seven, when his father was made an executive with the International Shoe Company (where the City Museum and the Last Hotel are now located). He lived here for more than two decades, attending Washington University, working at the International Shoe Company, and producing his first plays at local theaters. He credited his sometimes difficult experiences in St. Louis for the deeply felt poetic essence that permeates his artistry. When asked later in life when he left St. Louis, he replied, “I never really left.” Most people are familiar with the famous works that have garnered multiple Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards and Academy Awards, such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer. He also wrote hundreds of additional plays, stories, essays, and poems, many of which are only now seeing the light of day as his estate permits greater access. He is today considered by many leading authorities to be America’s greatest playwright.

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis invites playwrights to submit original one-act plays for our 2020 Playwriting Initiative. At least three winners will be chosen by our panel of playwrights. The winning plays will be presented in a staged reading, with professional actors, as an element of the 2020 Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, May 7-17, 2020. 


The winning playwrights will be invited to attend the staged reading and to participate in a talkback panel—featuring the other winners and the judges—at the conclusion of the event. The plays, with playwrights’ biographies, will be listed in the official Festival program.The winning playwrights will be provided with Festival passes. (The Festival will not be able to provide other compensation or reimbursement.)

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams started out in St. Louis writing one-act plays, and one of his biggest breaks was winning a competition sponsored by the Group Theater in New York—the first time he signed his name as “Tennessee” rather than “Tom.” He wrote more than seventy throughout his career—sometimes edgy, often experimental, and always infused with his unsurpassed poetry. Many of them have been presented at the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, several as world premieres. We invite you to find your inspiration in his artistry and to share it with us.

The panel is chaired by Jack Ciapciak, winner of New York University’s 2017 Goldberg Playwriting Prize and winner of our own inaugural Playwriting Initiative. Judges also include Deanna Jent, whose play Falling has been produced on Broadway, and Gregory Carr, who teaches playwriting at Harris Stowe University. 

Guidelines for submission:

  • The play must be no more than 15 minutes long.
  • The play must not have been professionally produced (although plays that have been workshopped or presented as staged readings are acceptable).
  • The play must be submitted by the author of the play.
  • Only one submission per author.
  • The author must include a statement of no longer than 250 words, including a brief biography, contact information, and author’s availability to attend the staged reading and serve on the talkback panel. (Attendance is requested but not mandatory.)
  • The play must be in a PDF in Standard Playwriting Format. 
  • Submit your materials by March 1, 2020, to [email protected] with the subject line 2020 Playwriting Initiative.

Winners will be notified no later than April 1, 2020. By submitting the play, authors give performance rights to the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis for the May, 2020 event, as well as possible other uses in connection with the 2020 Festival. Authors retain all other rights. 

For more information, visit the website: www.twstl.org

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 Tennessee Williams Festival will present “Confessions of a Nightingale” Nov. 1-4 at Curtain Call Lounge.
In “Confessions of a Nightingale,” Terry Meddows stars as Tennessee Williams, riveting us with untold stories of Williams’ private life and professional challenges. It will be directed by Lana Pepper and presented November 1-4 at the Curtain Call Lounge at the Fox Theatre in the Grand Center Arts District.
The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was named 2019 Best Arts Startup by the Arts & Education Council
St. Louis’s own Tennessee Williams, widely considered to be America’s greatest playwright, sat almost four decades ago for an extensive, self-revelatory interview with Charlotte Chandler. She, along with Ray Stricklyn, transformed that interview into a play that provides an unforgettable evening. The play has received rave reviews. The Los Angeles Times calls it “an irresistibly charismatic one-man show.” Time Magazine characterizes it as “ingratiatingly salty,” and the Hollywood Reporter gushes that it is “a thrilling evening.”
As the New York Times said, “This is 90 minutes spent in the company of a born dramatist ineluctably drawn to tell tales out of school.”  Tennessee gossips about Tallulah Bankhead, Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, and Greta Garbo—but in one of many deeply human moments of the play, he confesses that gossip, for him, is way of diverting people from that which is most personal–his work. And how would he like it all to end? ‘If I could choose my spot to die,” he says, “I would like it to be in a Broadway theater on opening night, listening to the wild ovation at the end of my newest play.”
Meddows, who is from Fairview Heights, Ill., and lives in St. Louis, has won acting awards from the St. Louis Theater Circle Award and the Kevin Kline, and been nominated several times. In recent years, he has performed “Grey Gardens” with Max and Louie Productions, “The Diary of Ann Frank” and “Yentl” at the New Jewish Theater, and “Waiting for Godot” at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio. He was in the 2017 Tennessee Williams Festival play, “Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?”.
Tickets for “Confessions of a Nightingale” go on sale on Friday, Sept. 7 through MetroTix, at the Fox Box Office or at the door. General admission tickets are $30, preferred seating is $35 and students with a valid ID are $25.  Parking available in Grand Center.
The full Tennessee Williams Festival season announcement will be coming soon at www.twstl.org.
About Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
Now in its fourth year, the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis enriches the cultural life of St. Louis by producing an annual theater festival and other artistic and educational events that celebrate the art and influence of Tennessee Williams. The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is led by Executive Artistic Director Carrie Houk, a producer,  casting director, actor, and teaching artist. For more information, visit www.twstl.org.