So you tell me you’re a huge Tennessee Williams fan? And you’ve reached this conclusion based on The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and maybe Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?
Big deal, say I. Anybody with a brain can see from those works and perhaps a few others that Williams is America’s greatest playwright. (And yes, I have heard of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, thank you very much).
I’m looking for the fan who will unapologetically stand up for the obscure Williams works. For The Mutilated, I Rise in Flame Cried the Phoenix, and The Red Devil Battery Sign. Because that’s the person I want to know.
Specifically – who will speak up for A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur, a study of female repression and isolation so wildly overwrought that it sometimes seems like one of Christopher Durang’s Tennessee Williams parody plays.
A recent New York production of Creve Coeur, directed by Austin Pendleton and produced by La Femme Theatre Productions, reminded us of its many compelling elements, as well as its perhaps insurmountable problems.
The play for sure is catnip for Williams aficionados, as it rings any number of familiar bells. In a dismal apartment house in pre-WWII St. Louis (ding), struggling middle-aged women (ding) enter each other’s orbits.
There are four of these women—Dorothea, Bodey, Helena, and Miss Gluck, in superficially different circumstances. Helena and Dorothea are employed as teachers and seem to have reasonably good prospects, while Bodey and Miss Gluck (the latter usually speaking German, when she speaks at all) have aged into pronounced spinsterhood.
The point, though, is that all of them—even the most resourceful (Helena, probably—she’s certainly the most conniving)—exist on the margins (ding—I’ll stop now, but you get the idea). The vagaries of life have created a precipice that could collapse at any moment, hurling them into an abyss.
There’s little specific action in Creve Coeur, yet the play feels like a relentless tug of war. The four women have the ability—and to some extent, the desire—to help each other, but also some wariness and the need for self-protection. The two rarely lead in the same direction.
This being Tennessee Williams, the baser side of human instincts is usually front-and-center, the underlying cruelty often startling. Watching it, I remembered a dark joke that sums up the archetypal narcissist personality: “It’s not enough that I succeed; my best friend also has to fail.”
Being Tennessee Williams also means that Creve Coeur is filled with flights of elliptical, poetic dialogue, sometimes about the most mundane things, that is simultaneously poignant and heartbreakingly funny. It’s not for everybody, and I’ll admit that while I was able to suppress my giggles reasonably well for a while, an extended riff on Golden Glow Shampoo nearly did me in.
But even in these moments, what Creve Coeur isn’t, at least not entirely, is camp. Indeed, its central message, which could hardly be more poignant, might be encapsulated by what Amanda says so memorably in The Glass Menagerie: “I know—the tyranny of women!”
In fact, much of Creve Coeur, written in 1978, very near the end of Williams’ career (and life), feels like backstory for his better-known early plays, The Glass Menagerie in particular. It’s easy to imagine Dorothea as kindred spirit to Amanda—but even more, to Blanche DuBois, as she reaches out sexually to men and emotionally to women in an effort to secure her very existence. (As a side note: so many of Williams’ late plays, perhaps not successful in themselves, are invaluable tools in helping us understand the rest of his canon).
All of this makes Creve Coeur very much worth producing. It does not make it easy to pull off.
Just to start, there’s the complicated question of tone: comic and sentimental, sometimes at the same time. The play also drifts quite far downstream of realism and naturalism, sometimes landing on the brink of absurdity. Consider Williams’ description of Bodey’s flat, the play’s only setting, which could serve as a broader metaphor: “Attempts to give the apartment brightness and cheer have gone brilliantly and disastrously wrong.”
I’m of two minds about Pendleton’s production. On one hand, I applaud his willingness to embrace abstraction, opening up the apartment in a way that is geographically impossible but captures both its chaos and the misguided attempts at coziness.
The actors, too, take full possession of a heightened style that goes beyond naturalism, though here the results are less consistent. The weakest is Kristine Nielsen (Bodey), who recycles a ditzy delivery and fluttery mannerisms that have served her so well in Durang plays to far less positive effect here.
At the other extreme is Annette O’Toole (Helena), whose sharp-edged delivery makes no attempt to soften the character. This performance strikes me as the most successful on its own, but it doesn’t really integrate with the others.
Jean Lichty (Dorothea) is the most traditionally Williams-like, including a Southern accent. But Polly McKie cannot overcome the worst excesses of the writing, and Miss Gluck emerges as little more than a grotesque.
Alas, “grotesque” is a word I thought of more than once watching Creve Coeur. Too often, Pendleton’s production falls on the wrong side of that fine line. I’ve written many times in reviewing Williams’ plays that his women deserve not scorn or smugness, but empathy. On this very critical note, Pendleton and company fail to deliver.