If you know Tennessee Williams, and I hope you do/will, you know there's a lot to unpack in his work. His characters are tormented and textured, plotlines layered with the riddles and aches of the human heart. There's no mercy when Tennessee Williams shines a flashlight into the darkest corners of a soul, and you will likely come away from the work exhausted and amazed for both the damage and any bit of renewal you've witnessed. Such is the case in The Night of the Iguana, playing at The Grandel Theatre now, as the main stage production of the 2019 Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.
The year is 1940, and Reverend Lawrence Shannon (James AndrewButz) who has been locked out of his church for committing fornication and heresy in the same week, is now a bus tour guide who escorts groups of church ladies from the U.S. down the coast of Mexico. One particular tourist on his latest trip, 16-year-old Charlotte Goodall (Summer Baer) has expressed her romantic interest in Shannon, and well, let's just say he expressed his back.
The other ladies on the bus from the Female Baptist College in Blowing Rock, Texas, led by the very vocal Miss Judith Fellowes (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), find this out and accuse him of statutory rape. So when the bus arrives at the run-down Costa Verde Resort owned by Shannon's long-time acquaintance - the recently widowed and libidinous Maxine Faulk (Lavonne Byers) - Shannon takes refuge. Soon enough, a refined spinster and artist Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis) along with her 97-year-old poet grandfather, Nonno (Harry Weber) arrive without a reservation, needing rooms for the night as well. Maxine, who has her eyes on Shannon and senses that Shannon has his eyes on Jelkes, refuses, until she reluctantly agrees to house them all for the night.
It is in this one night that an iguana is trapped and held captive. It is this one night that the oldest living and practicing poet on earth composes his last poem. It is this one night that Shannon suffers a breakdown and emerges into himself again. And it is this one night that Jelkes shows everyone that, "a bitch is no match for a lady except in a brass bed honey, and sometimes not even there." Well daaaang, Tennessee Williams!
This play is high drama, and the entire cast moves lithely from one scene to the next. There are a few times when the actors' backs are to portions of the audience, and it can be difficult to hear, but the energy this cast brings to the intimate and comfy Grandel Theatre is just wonderful. The skill Butz brings to his role is most impressive, with so many wonderfully dramatic outbursts.
Sturgis is a nice balance to this, with measured precision and intent, taking care to really convey the nuances and strengths of Hannah Jelkes. Byers is wholly believable as a middle-aged expat who once came to Mexico with a big dream that now seems broken and torn. The loneliness and longing radiate so beautifully from this character, though her body language projects guts and spunk. Weber is magnificent in the role of Nonno, composing his last poem ever at intervals throughout the play, but also sometimes just drifting off to a believable nonagenarian nap. And Townsend is fabulous as the protective and comically uptight Miss Fellowes. Even the way she stands is just so meddlesome and know-it-all. A special mention for Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay, and Hanna Lee Eisenbath, who pass through several scenes as German tourists who are also staying at the Costa Verde. Their every appearance is thoroughly delightful, though their cheerfully delivered Nazi marching songs are tinged with a foreboding that makes one mortified for feeling such delight. There are also quite a few exciting offstage interactions that lend more than a bit of electricity to this winding story and make this already-big cast seem even bigger.
Dunsi Dai's scenic design is something to see too, featuring weather-beaten wood cabins with see-through walls, dilapidation thick in the space between the living sea and the lush rainforest. While the sea is somewhere beyond the front of the stage, long green cloths overhead suggest a tangled jungle just beyond the rickety resort. The road, downhill from the resort, is difficult to navigate. And altogether it is a powerful visual representation of the depression and entrapment we find here.
This play, directed by Tim Ocel, is about "broken gates between people so they can reach each other, even if it's just for one night only." It is about metaphorically hiding and seeking, and it is not a stretch to say that you'll likely be challenged and satisfied by this wonderful play and performance.