This is the play where the famously faint-hearted Tennessee Williams gets up and fights back. Not in the last moment of the last scene, as usual, but somewhere around halfway through, in The Night of the Iguana. It's still (frequently) a herd of hissing, spitting cats, or perhaps medium-sized reptiles. But this time his abstracted characters find their hardened edge, like a league of gritty superheroes, long before the final curtain.
The Williams poetry is still there, though you might say the poetry itself dies an exculpatory death, unlike the seductive muse at the end of Orpheus Descending, or the abstract idea of innocent love in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or a son's dependence on his mother in The Glass Menagerie. In this year's featured attraction of the Tennessee Williams Festival, at the Grandel Theatre, the characters are fully grown and already fallen men and women. But they rise again, under the direction of Tim Ocel.
James Andrew Butz plays the defrocked Reverend Lawrence Shannon, fleeing a busload full of rural Texas school teachers he's been tour-guiding through Mexico. They suddenly sound like a phalanx of Amanda Wingfields, dogging one henpecked son through the quaint villages along the seashore (it may have been a recurring nightmare for the playwright). He escapes and struggles up a steep rain forest hillside where the scene is laid: a small hotel run by an old friend, Maxine (Lavonne Byers). He's on the lam, but when Shannon turns on his attackers, Mr. Butz begins to resemble a welterweight-fighter, as troubles mount. Emotionally, he seems like one of those old Tesla coils, in the height of the action: spiritual lightning seeming to flash off of him, many bolts at once.
This is the three-act version from 1961, but it goes smoothly and quickly, with two short intermissions and a run-time of about two hours and forty-five minutes. The only time it stretches out, like a cat in the sun, is late in act three when Hannah, played by the elegant, lyrical Nisi Sturgis, explains her own coming-to-terms with human sexuality to the importuning Reverend Shannon. In some overlapping universe, her tale may be ribald and hilarious. Thanks to Ms. Sturgis, on this contradictory plane, it's perfectly delicate and hypnotic. It's exactly the magic you're hoping for, when you go to see top-flight actors in a Williams show.
So, if it's not about the long search for inner-strength, what is it? Shannon must choose between two women, Maxine and Hannah, after he vanquishes his chief adversary, schoolteacher Judith Fellowes, played by Elizabeth Ann Townsend. One woman knows the world and has risen above it; the other knows Shannon, and graciously makes him her equal. It's a no-lose proposition, but he must also consider his changing sense of self, and his own place among women.