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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 299-301
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Tennessee Williams stands as one of America's greatest playwrights. He is also one of our most prolific, with forty-five full-length plays and over sixty one acts. Hartford Stage Company's Tennessee Williams Marathon, begun in 1998, has garnered national attention for their ongoing commitment to productions of this prolific and central theatre artist.
The Marathon's latest offering, having previously produced, screened, or read works ranging from his renowned A Street Car Named Desire to his more recondite Lovely Summer for Creve Coeur, was a double bill of one acts collectively called 8 by Tenn. The Rose program and the Blue program of four plays each were offered for a month in rotating nightly repertory, or, they could all be seen on one marathon day by attending a matinee and evening performance. The initial offering of one of the country's leading regional theatre's fortieth anniversary season, the one acts were selected from throughout the entire span of Williams's career from his earliest efforts like The Palooka (1937) to his last known work for the stage The One Exception (1983).
8 by Tenn smartly held its diverse offerings together through a clever directorial device and design conceit tied into Williams's biography. Deftly directed by HSC's Artistic Director Michael Wilson, who launched the Williams Marathon, with scenic design by Jeff Cowie, both programs opened with a similar mime sequence and set the plays on the stage's deep thrust in a warehouse-like space with tall movable shelf units of stacked boxes. The top of each program began with industrial sounds as actors dressed like factory workers arrived to clean up the numerous boxes and shoes scattered about. The last actor remaining on stage sported slicked back hair and a mustache and did not quite seem to fit in with the others. He picked up a shoebox and began to write inside its lid. He left a pair of the shoes on stage that then became incorporated into the action of the first play. For a period of a few years beginning in 1932, Williams worked at the International Shoe Company—a time he considered lost in his life—where his life legend has it he was fired for writing poems on shoebox lids. The dumb show opener and spare environment with monolithic units that could be reconfigured with simple set pieces trucked in as needed placed an elegant perspective and practical solution for the necessary transitions from play to play.
Each program was comprised of three shorter plays followed by an intermission and then a longer one act with a more elaborate set change. The Rose program—calling to mind his beloved sister Rose—offered three world premiere Williams stagings, The Palooka (1937), The One Exception (1983) and Now the Cats With Jewelled Claws (1969-1981), as well as the more familiar Portrait of a Madonna (1946). The Blue program—calling to mind Amanda Wingfield's Blue Mountain home and Williams's depressive periods (which he called his "blue devils")— offered his The Lady of Larkspur Lotion (1942), Something Unspoken (1953) and The Chalky White Substance (1980) followed by The Gnadiges Fraulein (1966). A cast of nine actors including veteran Williams performers Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Plummer filled their various roles with remarkable dexterity.
The five decades worth of plays worked like a Williams mini-retrospective of themes and concerns from throughout his life and career. The Palooka is an early one-joke sketch about two boxers. Portrait of a Madonna, with a stirring performance by Annalee Jefferies as the dejected socialite Miss Lucretia Collins, shows Williams on his way to creating Blanche Dubois. The One Exception, with a ticky performance by Plummer as the artist Kyra, shows Williams's own concern with slipping into madness and institutionalization. Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws and his short The Chalky White Substance show a color in Williams's palate most are not aware of—Williams the Absurdist...