Back row, from left: Jewelle Gomez, Cristine McMurdo-Wallis, John Guare, Piper Laurie, Thomas Keith, Amy Dickinson, Ace Atkins, Jodie Markell. Front row: Christian LeBlanc, Janet Daley Duval, and Paul J. Willis. Photo by RIDE HAMILTON
So my travel and Tennessee Williams Lit Fest cohort, Dimples (aka James Casarez), attended a couple of the event’s staged readings of the author’s plays. Here’re his thoughts from one of them …
Hiding in Plain Sight
An author as prolific as Tennessee Williams, who penned over 33 full-length plays and over 75 one-act and shorter plays, is bound to have an arsenal of hidden gems through his lesser-known works. The Tennessee Williams Literary Fest class “Hiding in Plain Sight” brought together a collection of scenes through staged readings of both his lesser-known works and more recognizable ones. Luminaries of the stage and page came together to breath life again into some of Williams’ most outstanding characters.
Six actors and four authors reading from eight different works created an intimate setting, allowing for a true connection with each scene. The actors were: Piper Laurie, (Carrie, Children of a Lesser God and a 1965 Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie), Christian Jules La Blanc, (The Young and the Restless), Janet Daley Duval, Amy Dickinson, Christine McMurdo-Wallis, and Jodie Markell. The authors were: John Guare, (The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Seperation) Jewelle Gomez, Ace Atkins, and Thomas Keith. Staged readings are unique: If you are not prepared, it can throw you off, as all stage directions are read in conjunction with the dialogue to help you build the scene in your mind’s eye.
Duval read a scene from “The Mutilated,” which debuted as one of a double bill of one-act plays by Williams titled “Slapstick Tragedy.” As with most of his plays, “The Mutilated” – which takes place on Christmas Eve as a group of ragtag carolers makes their way through the French Quarter – tells the story of a group of misfits and their desire to be accepted. Duval acted out the story of a young woman who had one breast removed. In this work, Williams explores the different pairings in life — a pair of breasts, pair of feet, a pair of people — and how not being in one of these pairs can make one feel like a lonely outcast in life. “Slapstick Tragedy” only lasted a week after opening, but Duval’s moving portrayal seemed to indicate that perhaps this work is ready to be brought back for a second glimpse.
From one of Williams’ better- known works, “Camino Real,” LeBlanc read a scene as Jacques Casanova, a once-infamous lover of women who is now an old man and only has one friend in the world. “Camino Real” is one of Williams’ most abstract works, yet was accepted and revered by audiences despite being slammed by critics. Technically, LeBlanc made outstanding use of timing to make the verse-like structure of this piece relatable and comprehensible to the audience.
I am not usually a fan of authors performing in staged readings, but John Guare changed my mind-set through his reading of one of Williams’ posthumously published pieces, “Mister Paradise.” It’s the story of a fading poet at the end of his life whose repertoire is rediscovered when a young woman finds one of his lost works holding up a broken table leg in an antique store. She is determined to give “Mister Paradise” back to the world, even though his only wish is to be left alone to finish out his days. Guare brought a voice to this poet that had us all believing that we were witnessing his chance encounter with the girl on the street.
The best reading really was saved for last, as Piper Laurie read from “Suddenly, Last Summer,” my personal favorite work of Williams. Laurie didn’t just read, she performed like none other. Laurie drew us in as she embodied Violet Venable and told the story of her deceased son finding the face of God in the Galapagos while watching the hatching of sea turtles. Laurie truly brought the entire audience into her lap with her soft yet determined voice. The intensity and precision of each syllable left us hanging on her every word. Laurie was in her element in this setting, and she showed it. Her performance rivaled that of the best known actress to tame this role, Audrey Hepburn.
“Hiding in Plain Sight” left me wondering what other works of Williams are just waiting to be explored again.
— James Casarez