Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Eccentricities by Tennessee Williams

(I’m in Prague and points unknown in Hungary the next week and a half. Blogging will be light but a few time sensitive posts will go up during that time.)

Alma Winemiller must be eccentric. She is far too demonstrative in her music. Not that music is an inappropriate pursuit in itself—she just puts too much of herself into it for the tastes of respectable society in early twentieth century Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Her creator, Tennessee Williams, clearly had more affection for her though, rewriting Alma’s first stage life, Summer and Smoke, into a substantially different play, eventually re-titled The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Although it became Williams’ preferred version, Eccentricities has rarely been revived, but a rare new production opened at the Clurman last night from The Actors Company Theatre.

Life has stacked the deck against Alma Winemiller. Her natural eccentric spirit is all the more suspicious to Glorious Hill in the light of the madness running unbridled through her family. Her mother’s mental instability is a constant source of embarrassment, sabotaging her own social development. However, the dark secret history of her Aunt Albertine (of New Orleans, no less) may cast a greater shadow over Alma. Given her place in the world, Alma’s continuing yearning for her childhood crush, the now dashing Dr. John Buchanan, Jr., appears hopeless.

According to the very helpful program notes, Williams cut several characters from Summer and greatly simplified the plot. The young Dr. Buchanan’s character was made more sympathetic and Alma became more assertive. They were probably wise edits, as the scenes shared by the two characters are sharply written, forming the heart and soul of the play.

In impressive performances, Mary Bacon and Todd Gearhart play Alma and her object of desire with nuance appropriate to the emotional complexity of Williams’ dialogue. Although their characters’ actions might not always be satisfying, they make those decisions completely believable. While most of the parental characters are basically stern and unsympathetic, the disturbed Mrs. Winemiller comes across more as a childlike woman stuck in a state of arrested development than the dread mad woman in the attic. As a result, the horrified reactions she engenders seem somewhat out of place.

Eccentricities is an intimate story, that proves quite compatible with the Clurman’s space. Bill Clarke’s gauzy sets and gothic backdrops effectively evoke the sense of Southern ennui that marked Williams’ work. Given how the playwright ranked Eccentricities within his body of work and his affinity for its lead character, it seems odd that the play has not been revived more frequently. While the Broadway version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof might be selling a lot of tickets because of celebrity casting, the simple directness of Eccentricities deserves to find an audience as well. TACT’s revival makes a strong case for revisiting the place of Eccentricities in the Tennessee Williams canon. It runs through May 24th.