How do I love thee? To count the ways Tennessee Williams would have us spend a hot and steamy night in a hole-in-the-wall hotel. One specific night: The Night of the Iguana. For all the eros this jungle locale suggests, the show is as much about other f-sounding forms of love from philial to filial. And to beat them all, that almighty unconditional love: agape.
With director René Moreno's true vision and trim script, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas shows why The Night of the Iguana is a treasure of the American theatrical canon. Williams' themes float like mists over the rainforest, delicate and intangible above the dense and dangerous lurking below. What's most impressive, however, is how light and easy this classic comes off. It's a perfect example of the theatrical alchemy of directing, ensemble and design. If your only exposure to this work has been the page, try the stage. You never knew it could be this good.
The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Ashley Wood) is a tour guide at the end of his rope. He brings his party of schoolteachers from Blowing Rock, Texas to a familiar haven, the Costa Verde Hotel in Mexico. The hot-to-trot widowed proprietress, Maxine Faulk (Cindee Mayfield) is more than happy to grant him sanctuary in spite of his frazzled nerves, fever and bus load of Baptists. But the leader of that group, Miss Judith Fellowes (Lorna Woodford), has reservations about reservations at this hotel that's not in the brochure. Not to mention that she wants the Reverend fired for the lousy tour and arrested for sleeping with the sixteen year-old in their group, Charlotte Goodall (Jessica Renee Russell).
To add to the circling situation around Shannon, Hannah Jelkes (Elizabeth Van Winkle), arrives with her 97-year-old grandfather, Nonno (Terry Vandivort). She's the dutiful spinster daughter of the oldest living and practicing poet. With his poems and her drawings, they make meager living out of their travels. At Shannon's behest Maxine makes room for the penniless pair.
Shannon tries to hold on to his sanity as well as the key to the bus, though both efforts seem doomed. As the evening progresses, he has to be tied to his hammock for his own safety. The strong ropes and wee hours allow Hannah and him to connect and contrast their lives and ways of love. The movement of grace is marvelously revealed as the play traces difference between the physical, friendly and almighty forms of love.
Rodney Dobbs creates a hotel at the end of the road on the top of a hill, jungle and rain included. The Act I ending tempest may be a part of the rebirthing baptism of the half-frocked Reverend, but it's small enough that its elimination wouldn't be missed. Russell K. Dyer's lights gently move us through the night and play nicely with Dobson's scrim walled hotel. Annell Brodeur's costumes are clearly convey the characters from the poet to the proprietress, from the cliff divers to the bus driver.
Moreno has allowed his principles to preserve the wit as well as the wink in Williams' text. Most actors in search of a great performance will create monumental stakes that leave no room for such humor and humanity. Nowhere is that more damaging than in a Tennessee Williams play where he leaves enough room for the character to realize they're being ridiculous, but not enough to change it. There's no better proof than the success of Woods' Rev. Shannon.
Tennessee Williams packs the text with quotable lines. Woods somehow takes advantage of the showman-like quality of the character without weakening the suffering he is depicting. The effect is a Shannon who is sympathetic in his manic misery. It is later in the play that Van Winkle's Hannah clearly reveals the secret to this charisma: He enjoys his suffering.
Mayfield plays Maxine with an abandon that is scary but attractive. She's a woman who knows that what she wants and what she needs are one and the same. Clarity of that sort comes with desperation, but Mayfield finds a way to make Maxine's naked hunger understandable even if it is as devoid of courtesy as it is of quibbles.
Van Winkle's Hannah, on the other hand, is perfectly poised despite impending disaster. Avoiding the mistake of creating an icy spinster, Van Winkle allows the character's quiet nobility to strengthen her side of arguments. That choice allows for a touching chemistry to develop between herself and Shannon that caps the achievements of the evening.
Director Moreno has pulled off a treat at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. It is important to be reminded from time to time what good theater looks like. If you make it to The Night of the Iguana, you'll probably be sitting next to patrons who've returned to see it a second time.
Is there any higher compliment?