Five By Tenn Gives Us Early, Unfinished Tennessee Williams

A chance to see some early Tennessee Williams.
A chance to see some early Tennessee Williams.
Photo by Gary Griffin

The setup:
Wait, isn't that Blanche from Streetcar?
Alma from Summer and Smoke? Tom from Glass Menagerie? Maggie the cat from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Sort of.

The execution:
Halloween has passed but ghosts haunt MATCH, where Dirt Dogs Theatre Company presents the evocatively titled Five by Tenn. This full-evening — very full indeed since the program runs almost three hours — comprises five rather obscure one-act plays by American master playwright Tennessee Williams. It's not that these dramas aren't successful or full of Williams's patented poetry and wistfully unfulfilled people; it's that these characters and themes will be so much better articulated in his full-blown later plays that reverberate with his unique turbulent idiosyncrasies.

The evening's a primer on what will be. Unfortunately, the primer's sketchy at best, a seesaw of conflicting acting styles, and a theatrical treatment that might be parody if we didn't know these wisps come from America's great chronicler of illusion and reality. You can see it immediately.

In The Lady of Larkspur Lotion (c. 1938), Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore (Malinda L. Beckham) wafts like Blanche in faded peignoir and swigs her alcohol none-too-surreptitiously from off her rococo vanity. Her landlady (Jo Ann Levine, all dialogue and no thought) wants the rent money. With boozy protestations, Mrs. Moore expects a check from her holdings in Brazil. While the landlady tries to snap some sense into this odd faded lady, who steps in but Mr. Williams himself, as the Writer (Allen Dorris). “Stop badgering this poor woman...is there no mercy in the world?” Pure Williams, you might say, except that disheveled Dorris, who bears an uncanny resemblance to boozy Williams himself in his later days, wears no pants, only a bottom-torn pair of what might be charitably called Daisy Dukes. It's a surprising comic look for an entrance meant to wrench us into sympathy and compassion. Nor will this kind of surprise be the last time we will be strangely tossed into comedy where none is warranted.

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Ghostly Blanche reappears in Portrait of a Madonna (1940), as if sometime in the future after her terrifying breakdown at the conclusion of Streetcar. Again in peignoir, Miss Lucretia Collins (a frightfully befogged Ananka Kohnitz) recounts her glory days as town belle, her unrequited lover and soft magnolia-perfumed nights when life seemed unbounded. As the hotel porter (Carl Masterson) and bemused Elevator Boy (Todd Thigpen) await the doctor who will usher Miss Collins off to the sanitarium, Miss Collins delivers her Williams monologue that details her lost hopes and desires. This showstopper is vintage Williams, aching with regret and what might have been. Neurotic and fragile, Kohnitz, grizzled in a storm-tossed Shirley Temple wig, shows the steel behind the encroaching cobwebs of her mind. Watch her hands, as precise as Penelope at her loom, as they weave her delusions in the air. It's the best performance all evening. One at right with the playwright, even when the others don't know quite how to react to such overripe dreams, bothering us with annoying stage business that doesn't belong anywhere near this reverie.

As if split in two, the Man (Allen Dorris) and Woman (Malinda L. Beckham) in Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen (1953) seem to be one soul, just inseparably divided. The man returns from an all-night binge, feeling as if he's “been passed around like a dirty postcard,” and then collapses on the bed, while the woman relates her desires to be cleansed and free. It's a fragmented, fragrant monologue, again something only Williams could have devised with such naked honesty, as once again illusion is shattered by reality. Beckham, in the evening's other great set piece, discovers all the anguish, disappointment and sad truth in the Woman's need for connection. We're all alone, she seems to say, but at this moment we're here together; take my hand.

Something Unspoken, once the opener for his two-play Garden District (1953), in which Suddenly, Last Summer was the closer, is hardly that. We know from the get-go what unsaid desires propel proper and regal Miss Scott (Malinda Beckham) toward her loyal secretary, Miss Lancaster (Melissa J. Mayo). In what was once described as a “Boston marriage,” these women are on love's collision course. Miss Scott wields her imperious status in town like an obverse Stanley, oozing velvet gentility under a shell hard as her lacquered hair. Miss Lancaster, timid and demure, seems destined to fall into this spider's web without too much complaint. Under the guise of light comedy – numerous phone calls from the social club about to vote in a new president interrupt an insinuating Scott – Miss Scott lightly treads all over Miss Lancaster, using her employer's prerogative to get what she wants. It's all about power plays, but manly Miss Scott holds all the cards.

The Long Goodbye (1940) is ur-Glass Menagerie (1944), a memory play as son Joe (Ralph Biancalana) says his good-byes to Mother (Jeanette Sebesta) and sister Myra (Holly Vogt Wilkison) as he goes off to become a writer. You can see Williams fit himself into the storytelling with a finesse that he'll hone just a few years later into his first great Broadway success. He'll become more brazen, more truthful and more theatrical, but all the pieces are there in Goodbye. Dampened by a misplaced Biancalana, who doesn't quite get what he's supposed to do or how to play it, Joe hasn't the depth of the later play's Tom. He watches what's happening, but doesn't connect, and all subtext is missing. Myra's journey from good-time girl to slattern isn't helped by her bad floozy wig or the overt sleaziness of her gentleman caller (Allen Dorris). Sentiment is there in spades, to be achingly pinpointed and softened in Menagerie by subtle symbolism and much more finely etched characters.

The verdict:
You watch Tennessee Williams grow into a theater colossus in Five By Tenn. Imprecisely directed by Trevor B. Cone and Bonnie Hewett, these shards from the past are antecedents for sure, like pastel pencil drawings of the rich oil paintings to follow. It's still fascinating to see how these bits and pieces will artfully bloom only a few years later into indelible stage archetypes of theater history.

Five by Tenn. 7:30 p.m. November 10; 8 p.m. November 11 and 12. Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. at The MATCH, 3400 Main Street. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit dirtdogstheatre.org or matchouston.org/events/five-tenn. $20.


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