Tennessee Williams: Alive at 105

The noted and sometimes notorious American playwright of despair and hope Tennessee Williams would have been 105 years old March 26. Given his often turbulent life and bouts of precarious health, there was never much chance that he would even come close to that kind of old age.

But the Mississippi-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning author nearly made it to 72, succumbing Feb. 25, 1983, in his suite at New York’s Hotel Elysée, to what the coroner described as “Seconal intolerance.”

Gone he may be from life, but his plays live on. In the playing, they seem still to be entirely original works of art, continuing to challenge audiences and theater artists alike — especially actresses, for whom Williams wrote indelible, memorable and iconic roles.

For many actresses, women like Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, Maggie the Cat and Alexandra Del Lago are as demanding and enticing as a Hamlet, an Othello or a Lear; they long to jump into Maggie’s slip, Blanche’s madness and Alexandra’s crumbling charisma the way a cat might a approach a poisoned bowl of milk, with interest, fearless.

Proof positive of Williams’s place in American theater and cultural history exists all around us, especially, it seems lately, in the Washington area. Madeleine Potter just finished a run at Ford’s Theatre as Amanda Wingfield, the diva-like single mother who lives her life through the prospects of her delicate daughter in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Now Round House Theatre in Bethesda is taking on “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” from March 26 through April 30, as the Keegan Theatre did when it opened its renovated space on Church Street in Dupont Circle last year.

Maggie, the rest-less, frustrated, sexually seething wife of Brick, will once again roam the stage, challenging her hard-drinking, wounded husband and going toe to toe with Big Daddy and Big Momma — just as Elizabeth Taylor did in the 1958 film version and Elizabeth Ashley did on Broadway in 1974 (directed by Michael Kahn in what many see as a definitive version). Mitchell Hébert is directing, with Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Maggie, Gregory Wooddell as Brick, Rick Foucheux as Big Daddy and Sarah Marshall as Big Momma.

Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, in its new location in a renovated vaudeville house, will stage “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in which the feverish and unstable Blanche DuBois visits her sister Stella in New Orleans, sparking a tragedy and an electrically charged crisis involving Stella’s violent husband Stanley Kowalski. The production, directed by Derek Goldman, artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University, will be presented as part of “The Great American Rep,” alternating with Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Everyman Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi. Both run through June 12, with “Salesman opening April 6 and “Streetcar” April 13.

The theatrical ghost of Williams has been a regular presence in Washington. A highlight was the major Tennessee Williams festival at the Kennedy Center in 2004, which included “Cat,” “Streetcar” and “Glass Menagerie,” as well as five one-acts, a one-man show starring Richard Thomas and, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the rarely produced “Camino Real” — a colorful smorgasbord of a play that resists sense but is as compelling as a ragged wizard’s parade.

In 1998, the Shakespeare Company assayed a production of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” in which Ashley once again returned to Washington to work with Kahn and embody a Tennessee Williams woman, this time the beleaguered, voracious actress Del Lago, accompanied by her young lover, who’s back in his Southern hometown looking for love in just the wrong place. Few theater moments are more memorable than when Ashley, who had a gift for Williams’s work, emits a long, painful growl from underneath the sheets, emerging slowly, as if in emotional and physical sections.

Williams’s great gift was to create plays about characters with horribly wounded but shining and indomitable hungers, souls who embrace both a kind of spiritual physicality and a tortured, killing, searing and shameful choice. He was a gay man whose relationships were public at a time when being openly gay amounted to living a difficult life, especially for a man of his sensitivities and insecurities.

Williams would bring poetry to the often unpoetic situations and events in his plays, many of which were inhabited by a host of sinners and not a few monsters and potential saints. His works were filled with dramatic tension, things left unspoken then suddenly given loud and rude voice, in the manner of a cry of pain.

The persistence of the work on stage, coming alive again and again, also speaks to his life and persona, and perhaps accounts for the popularity of and critical acclaim for the 2014 book “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” a biography written by New Yorker critic and writer John Lahr with bravado, style and great but unblinking empathy.

A finalist for the National Book Award, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the biography category. The paperback version was published late last year and remains a steady seller. It is a superb theater book, full of stories connected to the writing and making of a good chunk of American literary and theatrical history.

Actors seem haunted by his work, and attracted to it, generation after generation. Cate Blanchett brought the theatrical company she runs with her husband in Sydney to the Kennedy Center to star in “Streetcar.” Last year, there was a version of “Streetcar” starring Scarlett Johansson as Maggie.

Marlon Brando of course starred as Kowalski in the original stage production and in the film version, which featured an unforgettable (and Oscar-winning) performance as Blanche by Vivien Leigh. Years and years later, when we talked to the late actor Anthony Quinn (who was doing the musical version of “Zorba”), he told us that he had taken over for Brando after he went to Hollywood. “People told me I was better than him,” he claimed, obviously still consumed by the part.

The movies proved fertile ground for Williams’s work: Taylor and Paul Newman, with Burl Ives as Big Daddy, in “Cat”; Taylor, a crazed Katharine Hepburn and a hollow Montgomery Clift in “Suddenly, Last Summer”; Richard Burton and Ava Gardner superb in “The Night of the Iguana”; Vivien Leigh returning in “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone”; the crazed “Boom,” a Taylor-Burton vehicle.

It’s certain that the new “Cat” in Bethesda and “Streetcar” in Baltimore won’t be the last. The best plays of Tennessee Williams represent a siren song, for audiences and artists alike. “It’s about the poetry,” a director once said to me.

I think it’s about us — that these burning hot, suffering souls are us, at some time or crossroads, complete with a cross. That’s this playwright’s triumph, that his work is in this sense deathless. Happy birthday, Tennessee.


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