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The Night of the Iguana

Tennessee Willimas Festival, 2019

Joe and Ann Pollack – St. Louis Eats and Drinks

The Night of the Iguana kicks off this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, and it’s a hot time in the old town. Taken from a short story which evolved into the play and then a film, it’s one of the classic Williams pieces, full of steam and drama.

A seedy hotel in the rain forests of Mexico, a point between feverish daze and reality carefully created by Dunsi Da, is the setting. It’s owned and run by Maxine Faulk, a bawdy, strong-willed woman whose older husband has recently died. She’s employed a couple of young men who have worked as cliff divers at other hotels, barking orders and utilizing them in other ways, not all of which are seen onstage. Climbing up the steep hill to the hotel is a returning guest, the Reverend Mr. Lawrence Shannon, who’s unexpectedly brought a busload of Baptist ladies who comprise a group tour he’s leading.

Shannon has more than a busload of problems. He’s a binge alcoholic and has a taste for very young women. The group is unhappy with pretty much everything he’s done on the tour, from food to no sightseeing. The crowning touch is his over-appreciation of a 16-year-old on the tour.

Maxine doesn’t want the Baptist ladies, who are still in the bus, and the ladies don’t want to stay there, but Shannon is in the middle of what could charitably be called an(other) existential crisis, dodging both the group leader and the little sweetie who still has the hots for him. To add fuel, Maxine certainly would like for Shannon to stay. Then two more unexpected guests arrive, a middle-aged woman and her very elderly grandfather, both itinerant artists.

It’s a show packed with great work. James Andrew Butz, (the actor formerly known as Jim Butz) gives Shannon desperation and wildness, falling into self-contemplation and then completely losing it, a tooth-rattling performance. The crowning touch is his mastery of the mid-stage hammock, hammocks being nice to look at but the very devil to manage gracefully. Maxine, the hotel owner, comes to us via Lavonne Byers in a performance that could have been played far more widely. But that would have given us a caricature of character. Instead we see a long look or a raised eyebrow instead of a more salacious move. It makes the audience look more closely. 

New to St. Louis is Nisi Sturgis as Hannah, the sketch artist-granddaughter. The family is from Nantucket, and Hannah is a self-contained New Englander. Nevertheless, she eyes Shannon with restrained curiosity and kindness, enough that Maxine senses a challenge to her play for him. Sturgis’ Hannah is half-ethereal, reality-based but still, somehow, almost floating. Hannah’s grandfather is played by Harry Weber, perhaps better known to St. Louis as a sculptor. (Ironically, the bust of Tennessee Williams at Euclid and McPherson is Weber’s work. He’s swell as the aged grandfather, a poet trying to create his swan song.)

Williams’ plays, like Woody Allen’s movies, always have a character that is at least partly identifiably Williams. Here it’s Shannon, but in another sense, it’s part of Hannah, as well, a different side of Williams, the calm and almost loving talking to the nearly-out-of-control.

Tim Ocel directed, clearly using a clear vision of what this ought to be, and he’s delivered in spades. Jon Ontiveros’ lighting is a key, and so is Ellie Schwetye’s sound. It’s been a while since the play was done in St. Louis, and it’s something theatre-goers ought to flock to.

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