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The Night of the Iguana at Theatre Southwest Is Complex But Exciting

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The setup:

The Night of the Iguana in 1961 was Tennessee Williams's last real success on Broadway, starring Patrick O'Neal as a lascivious, disgraced minister, Bette Davis as the lusty owner of a cheap tourist hotel in Mexico, and Margaret Leighton as the caring granddaughter of an aging poet whose mind is going; Leighton received the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. The 1964 film version starred Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr in these roles. Now Theatre Southwest, not intimidated by its complexity or its large cast of 12, mounts its own revival.

The execution:

Theatre Southwest's intimate space successfully creates the feeling of a sleepy, slightly run-down hotel on the coast of Mexico, brown tiled verandah and gray distressed wood, and into these premises strides Lisa Schofield as Maxine Faulk, recently widowed and owner/manager of the hotel. Schofield creates an involving and grippingly authentic portrait of a woman rooted in reality and seeing things clearly, but lightened with charm and a sense of humor. She anchors the play as eddies of hysteria swirl like fireflies in the night.

Tyrrell Woolbert portrays Hannah Jelkes, caregiver and granddaughter of the 97-year old poet Nonno, whose memory and mind are receding. Woolbert stamps the role with quiet authority, and in her Act Two description of Hannah's very limited sexual "relationships," Woolbert finds the majesty in truth-telling, and the poetry in two very human experiences. It is the highlight of the evening, and captures the magic of playwright Williams's look into the abyss of human nature and his acceptance of its tormented variety.

Considerably less successful is Scott McWhirter as the Reverend Larry Shannon, a disgraced minister now reduced to a position as a tour guide, with a taste for the bottle and an eye out for 16-year-old young women. Shannon enters as a man driven by demons, all twitchy and distraught, defeated, cowardly and panicky, an object of derision and contempt. This very busy entrance leaves him nowhere to go for the rest of the play, except to repeat himself. McWhirter and director Mimi Holloway apparently decided to portray Shannon without dignity or charm, which seriously weakens the play's drive, as Shannon is intended to be a bit of a chick magnet, sought after by Maxine, Hannah and, yes, another 16-year-old. McWhirter is a fine actor, with a recent dynamic triumph as the lead in Murdering Marlowe, but he is miscast here and his interpretation is deeply off the mark.

John Stevens as the 97-year old poet looks simply wonderful with white hair, and he creates the feeling that he is breathing a different air on the mountaintop of poetry -- an interesting and convincing portrait in a difficult role. The rest of the large cast is admirable in less prominent roles, and Holloway keeps the pace flowing and has ingeniously solved the many production problems inherent in the script. John Stevens and John Kaiser created the successful and interesting set, and John Mitsakis did the generally effective lighting design. The appropriate costumes were by Malinda L. Beckham, and Scott Holmes did the important and complex sound effects.

The verdict:

A complex, dynamic play by a theatrical master is brought to exciting life by skilled actors, resulting in a fascinating evening filled with insights, power and moments of pure magic.

The Night of the Iguana continues through May 4 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For ticketing or information, call 713-661-9505 or contact www.theatresouthwest.org.

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