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The Night of the Iguana

Tennessee Willimas Festival, 2019

Mark Bretz – Ladue News

Story: Ex-minister T. Lawrence Shannon arrives at a seedy little hotel on the coast of Mexico in 1940 with a busload of women tourists. He doesn’t give a damn about any of them, not even Charlotte, the 16-year-old girl he’s seduced en route to the tucked-away resort run by his friends Fred and Maxine Faulk.

Maxine greets the stranger warmly, then informs him that Fred has recently passed away. She’s in dire straits now as she tries to keep the tiny operation afloat, off the beaten path from the tourist center in the nearest town.

Shannon has taken this job as a bus tour guide for a second-rate travel agency after being institutionalized for a “nervous breakdown” for calling God a “senile delinquent” from the pulpit of his former church. He isn’t much on social graces or even in attempting to show the ladies a semblance of what they paid to see, something their leader, Judith Fellowes, angrily observes.

She sees Shannon as nothing more than an outrageous fraud and intends to keep him away from Charlotte and well on his way to financial ruin. Meanwhile, he’s been charged with statutory rape for his seduction of Charlotte, who professes aching, yearning love for him to his annoyed indifference and hostility.

Just as the bus arrives, another stranger happens upon the scene, an artist named Hannah Jelkes. She regularly accompanies her 97-year-old grandfather, an itinerant poet, around the world, exchanging sketches and recitals in exchange for food and lodging. Maxine tells her coldly, though, that she and ‘Nonno’ can stay for one night only at her lodge.

As a storm descends upon the area, Shannon and Hannah communicate with each other for one long night in their respective fashions: One filled with alcohol, rage and a consuming appetite for women, the other poised, philosophical and chaste in her belief that “Nothing human disgusts me, unless it is unkind, violent.”

Highlights: Director Tim Ocel and his cast strike all the right notes in this faithful adaptation of one of playwright Tennessee Williams’ strongest dramas, the linchpin of the 2019 Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.

Other Info: Williams’ poetic and passionate three-act drama premiered on Broadway in 1961 after several incarnations beginning with a short story written in 1948. Patrick O’Neal, Bette Davis and Margaret Leighton starred in the production, which ran for 316 performances. A memorable 1964 film directed by John Huston featured Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr in the leading roles.

Ocel and Festival artistic director Carrie Houk both consider Iguana their favorite Williams work. Their love for this incisive look at humanity from different vantage points propels the Festival production to its poignant conclusion.

Scenic designer Dunsi Dai says in his program notes that “inspired by our director’s strong vision, the set goes with the impression of the situation, not a realistic recreation of the location.” This enables the audience to observe Shannon, Hannah and Nonno in their “cells,” as Hannah notes, behind flimsy curtains on the main performance platform, while entrances from stage left accommodate the arrival of guests to Maxine’s rundown resort.

Lighting designer Jon Ontiveros complements Dai’s forlorn-looking set with shades of haunting illumination while costume designer Garth Dunbar dresses the characters in a suitable range, from the dapper attire of Hannah and Nonno to the carefree abandon of Maxine and her staff to the vulgar wardrobes favored by a family of German Nazi-sympathizing tourists.

Ellie Schwetye’s choice of music adds a suitably melancholy touch to the sound design, although the missing wails of a captive lizard alluded to by Hannah would enhance the effect of falling rain and other background noises. Lana Dvorak’s properties selection adds to the “impressions” desired by Ocel in the appearance of Dai’s set.

A true highlight of the Festival’s rendition is Nisi Sturgis’ elegant interpretation of the single Hannah. She carefully and in measured tones enunciates Hannah’s every line, thoughtfully conveying the quiet artist’s soulful reflection. Her scenes with Jim Butz as Shannon offer superior moments of acting craftsmanship by both performers which richly elevate the presentation.

Butz is at his best as the volcanic, self-destructive preacher, who revels in his own blasphemy while he rages uncontrollably, mired in his weaknesses and fitful consumption. He expertly walks Shannon’s unstable line between madness and lucidity throughout his performance.

Lavonne Byers competes the core trio as the lusty and realistic Maxine, who’s guided Shannon through these rocky shoals before and knows how to deal with his mercurial nature to best suit her own needs. Byers’ Maxine is caustic yet vulnerable as the hotel operator who considers her own limited options in a world indifferent to her situation.

There’s sturdy supporting work by an ingratiating cast which includes Greg Johnston as Jake, another travel agency employee who is subjected to Shannon’s cruel insults, and Harry Weber as the dapper if fading intellectual Nonno, certainly reliant on the kindness of strangers.

Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay and Hannah Lee Eisenbath bring a chilling vulgarity to the self-centered German tourists, while Victor Mendez and Luis Aguilar convey the abandon of Pedro and Pancho, respectively, Maxine’s staff.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend brings out the fierce determination for justice, both social and economic, in tour leader Judith Fellowes, another target of Shannon’s insulting diatribes. Spencer Sickmann fits the bill as Hank, the befuddled tour bus driver, and Summer Baer is effective as the starry-eyed teen Charlotte.

The Night of the Iguana is filled with dialogue which showcases Williams’ poetic touch as well as his sage observations of the human condition, making it an ideal pillar for the Tennessee Williams Festival’s fourth annual showcase.

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