Dallas — At WingSpan Theatre Company at The Bath House Cultural Center, director Susan Sargeant and a blazing cast of two get the mix of poetry and panic just right in a wonderfully messy, maddening version of Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play. This is a circular, surreal later work by the brilliant navel-gazer Williams—and the sense of panic is his own. By the mid-1960s the critics who once praised him were slamming Williams’ new plays one by one; theater had moved on, they griped, while he kept doing the same old thing. Williams’ era-altering hits of the 1940s and 1950s (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo) must have seemed from another lifetime.
In a way, the critics were right. Williams’ own bad, sad family history was his wellspring, and he drew from that dark water again and again. The Two-Character Play (1967) is another brother-sister saga, part of a obsessive literary feedback loop that began with Williams’ 1947 Menagerie and kept going almost until his death (a probable suicide) in 1983.
Tom and Laura, meet Felice and Clare.
Any resemblance between the twenty-something brother and sister of Williams’ Glass Menagerie—the girl a fluttering, trapped bird; the young man desperate for release, but unable to break the bonds of family and memory—and this duo, an older, coarser sibling pair “lost in the play” they perform obsessively again and again…is purely intentional.
What’s new about The Two-Character Play, however, are the echoes of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Sartre’s No Exit. Williams’ signature voice, with its yin/yang between the brutal and the fragile, remains distinct and vivid—but he’s clearly playing with the surrealist/absurdist Big Boys here. He’s structured a play that chases its own tail ad infinitum—and he’s wondering, probably, if critics and audiences (“those fur-bearing mammals,” as he calls us in the play) will bite. Maybe that’s why Williams’ wouldn’t let this one go: he worked on the Two-Character script for many, many years before its 1967 London premiere (and after—a later version of the play was titled Out Cry).
Kevin Scott Keating (Felice) and Lulu Ward (Clare), who bring a swing-for-the fences energy and inventiveness to their roles, are a study in contrasting physicality: he’s a long, lanky drink of water, drawing himself up to command the stage with a booming voice; she’s a small person of quick, fluttering movement and mood, alternatingly twittering and gritty. To watch Ward swing her legs, too short for the chaise at center stage, is to see the frightened child within. Like most siblings, Felice and Clare dredge up old grievances and argue over everything—especially the text of the play—and fill in the blanks of one another’s sentences in a “mad lib” style that takes on a verse-like rhythm. The whole endeavor has an improvised, “let’s put on a show” feel: Clare has a death-grip on a handbell she rings to demand cuts in the text, and both shout “line!” when they “dry up” and forget what comes next.
Felice and Clare’s reality (if that’s what it is) is highly debatable. The two may be living in their dead parents’ cold and empty house, hoping for insurance money or a kind of “citizens relief” to kick in. Or they may be worn-out actors on a road tour that never ends, deserted by the rest of the company, who’ve left them with only the set of The Two-Character Play—and no choice but to “play” Felice and Clare. Perhaps, somehow, both (or neither?) are true.
A taut, ceiling-height grid of criss-crossed lines of twine—literal and imaginary “ties that bind”—is the signature of Nick Brethauer’s scenic design, which borders this claustrophobic house/stage with empty door and window frames. There’s a blanked-out world beyond, lit only by strong blocks of color from lighting designer David Allen Powers. The set isn’t always what Felice and Clare expect. There should, they say in mid-scene, be a set of stairs—but it isn’t there this time, and the “players” (after a moment of surprise) improvise lines to describe Clare’s trip to an upstairs room.
They try to muster courage for a walk to the grocery store—but fight the lure of the “whispering, breathing house” and their dread of the outside world. “It’s a prison,” they say, “but not one that is strange to us.” Or is the house itself an emotional construct, a fantasy to gloss over their failures in the world of theater: on the road, audiences jeering, and no way to go home without the disgrace of being a “has been”? Tennessee Williams knew all about that.
“To tell the story of the plays is to tell the story of the man, and vice versa,” writes John Lahr in his just-published bio of Williams, whose “romance” with theater, Lahr says, “allowed him…to act out the warring fragments of family madness to which he had been an understudy all his life.” The story he never told enough, the wound he never let heal, is the story of his sister Rose, whose mental illness led to a disastrous lobotomy he wasn’t around to prevent. In The Two-Character Play, we see Williams standing again at the scene of that crime, picking at the scab, analyzing the wound, meditating again on what was—and what might have been.
WingSpan and Sargeant have done a brave and unsparing job of organizing the chaos of this complicated work, which challenges the audience to find, if not hope, at least a kind of love at the center of this two-character dance. And though the play can stand alone, Williams does depend a bit on the kindness (and smarts) of longtime theatergoers—knowing that if we once cared about what happened to Menagerie’s Tom and Laura, we already have a vested interest in the fate of Felice, who is anything but happy, and Clare, who isn’t clear about anything at all.