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The Night of the Iguana

Tennessee Willimas Festival, 2019

Calvin Wilson – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (James Andrew Butz) takes pride in being a tour guide, but he can’t get out of his own way. And if he continues to indulge in questionable behavior — such as seducing underage girls — he may find himself at the end of the road.

Shannon is a colorful and complex character and the focus of “The Night of the Iguana.” The play runs through May 19 in a brilliant Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis production.

Williams, who spent some of his early years in St. Louis and is buried at Calvary Cemetery, had a genius for exploring the mysteries of the human heart, and “Iguana” is one of his most insightful, poetic and hilarious works. Set at a rundown Mexican hotel in 1940, this tale of regret and redemption was his last Broadway hit.

Shannon is reluctant to wear a dead man’s shoes — or become ensnared in the web of the man’s widow, hotel manager Maxine Faulk (Lavonne Byers). What the disillusioned clergyman badly needs is a soul mate, and itinerant painter Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis) is definitely a possibility. She may be even more damaged than he is, but against all odds Hannah has held onto one inarguably vital thing: hope.

Director Tim Ocel elicits fine performances from a 14-member cast, moving things along with panache and deftly avoiding easy sentimentality to get to emotional truth.

Butz turns in a powerhouse performance, capturing Shannon’s hubris but also his humor — and zeroing in on his spiritual malaise with pinpoint accuracy. As Hannah, Sturgis strikes just the right balance between fragility and spunk. Byers brings blowsy authority to Maxine, who correctly identifies Hannah as a rival for Shannon’s affections. And Harry Weber exudes low-key charm as Hannah’s poet grandfather and traveling companion, Nonno.

The production benefits mightily from Dunsi Dai’s atmospheric set and Jon Ontiveros’ evocative lighting. “The Night of the Iguana” is a classic play with unapologetically old-school values, and it’s among the finest achievements of one of America’s greatest artists.

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