Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has made a lasting impression on the theatre scene here in four short years. Through its mainstage productions, other theatrical offerings, panel discussions and additonal events, the festival has established a strong presence. Last year’s mainstage show, A Streetcar Named Desire, proved to be a highlight of the entire St. Louis theatrical year. Now, the festival is following up last year’s success with a new, bold staging of Williams’ thought-provoking The Night of the Iguana, boasting a strong cast and especially stunning production values.
The stage of the Grandel Theatre has been strikingly transformed into a run-down hotel in Mexico by means of a spectacular set by Dunsi Dai and luminous lighting by Jon Ontiveros, along with meticulously detailed costumes by Garth Dunbar. The story focuses on common themes for Williams–loneliness, flawed people, and seemingly unattainable dreams. Here, the focus is on a disgraced former minister-turned-tour guide in the early years of World War II.
Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (James Andrew Butz) is an alcoholic who left his last church job in disgrace after an inappropriate relationship with a very young Sunday school teacher. Now, he’s leading a tour group of young ladies from Texas on an excursion that is straying from the advertised route, to the great dismay of chaperone Judith Fellowes (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), who is especially upset about Shannon’s attentions toward one of her charges, the 16-year-old Charlotte Goodall (Summer Baer). There’s also the newly-widowed Maxine Faulk (Lavonne Byers), who owns the hotel and has designs on Shannon. Meanwhile, a group of German tourists (Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay, and Hannah Lee Eisenbath) meander about, gleefully singing and celebrating news from Europe (basically, bombings and perceived Nazi victories). Into this situation come traveling artists and hustlers in their own way Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis) and her grandfather or “Nonno”, elderly poet Jonathan Coffin (Harry Weber), who is dealing with memory loss and struggling to finish his last poem. As memorable as all the characters are, including a supporting ensemble that features Victor Mendez (as Pedro), Luis Aguilar (as Pancho), Spencer Sickmann (as Hank), and Greg Johnston (as Jake Latta), the key figures are Shannon, Maxine, Hannah, and Nonno, and the most gripping and compelling drama revolves around these characters. Questions raised include regret, lost dreams and aspirations, temptation vs. desire for redemption, loneliness, and more. It’s a deep, intense, and sometimes disturbing character study that explores how these characters play off of one another and what makes them who they are.
The atmosphere is stunningly realized by the production, and the theme and struggle of the characters is well-portrayed by the first-rate cast, led by the always excellent Butz as the troubled Shannon and the especially impressive Sturgis as Hannah, who imbues her character with a hopeful energy and a believable mid-century accent and excellent chemistry with Butz, along with a credible sense of a lived history and genuine bond with the also excellent Weber as the determined, ailing Nonno. Byers also turns in a memorable performance as the brash, possessive Maxine. The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well, with standouts including Townsend as assertive Judith, and Isom and Doggett as deceptively cheerful German tourists. It’s a cohesive cast all around, with everyone turning in a strong performance, supporting the truly remarkable leads.
The Night of the Iguana is a compelling evocation of time, place, and character, with characters who are notably flawed and struggle to maintain hope in the midst of a sense of looming menace, both internal and external. It’s a vividly staged, impeccably cast production. It ushers in the Fourth Annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis with remarkable energy and poignancy. It’s another stunning success from the Festival.