The Costa Verde Hotel on the cliffs high above Acapulco might as well be the end of the world for the tourists and American ex-patriots who converge there in Tennessee Williams' haunting and haunted THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA currently receiving a star-studded revival at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, Mass. Either seeking an elusive happiness or escaping a tortured past, the various travelers who end up on the windswept veranda of the remote resort owned by the recently widowed proprietress Maxine Faulk wrestle with inner demons and dying hopes one steamy and stormy night.
But Shannon doesn't go gently into his goodnight. As he periodically does, every 18 months or so according to Maxine (Dana Delany), he slips into a melancholy madness that only she, or institutionalization, can ease. He becomes almost Christ-like in his suffering, chastising himself as he does his victims with a violently righteous indignation.
The only person who seems able to calm Shannon on this particular sojourn is Hannah Jelkes (the magnificent Amanda Plummer), a New England "spinster" and watercolor artist who travels the world with her ailing Nonno (James Earl Jones) trading her quick character sketches and his poetic recitations for room, board, and company. Outwardly ingenuous, Hannah is nonetheless Shannon's equal. She isn't fazed by his outbursts and rabid confessions. She has a few secrets of her own, and her unflappable nature is oddly soothing to the volatile sinner.
The developing friendship between Hannah and Shannon isn't lost on the lusty Maxine. Despite her apparent carefree demeanor when it comes to life and loving, she seems to have a soft spot for Shannon and is threatened by Hannah's interference. There is a quiet desperation beneath Maxine's bravado, and even companionship with a damaged pedophile is perhaps a better option than lonely widowhood during the chilly off-season.
The real draw for this particular revival of one of Williams' less frequently performed dramas is the notable cast. Heck, Delany, Jones, Plummer, and the estimable Elizabeth Ashley as the overbearing Texas tour group chaperone Judith Fellowes raise the temperature considerably in an otherwise tepid production. Director Michael Wilson's naturalistic pacing fails to build much tension, which leaves the actors to create their own moments of poetic majesty. Thankfully, they do - and often - with Plummer centering the entire piece brilliantly.
Throughout her performance Plummer is reminiscent of an ethereal Julie Harris. Gently yet profoundly she blends optimism and pragmatism, revealing the ways in which life has transformed her girlish dreams into something less artistic but no less satisfying. With Heck's Shannon she is forthright. With Jones' Nonno, she is kind. With Delany's Maxine she is demurely cunning - until challenged. Then she is formidable. Whenever Plummer is on stage, THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA is riveting. When she is in the wings, attention wanders.
Set designer Derek McLane, costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer David Lander and sound designer John Gromada have created the perfect world for this A.R.T. production. The Costa Verde Hotel and its spacious veranda are perched precariously upon a steep cliff high above the Pacific Ocean. Breezes waft through tall sheers at the edge of the veranda and wooden steps lead down to the sandy beach below. Bungalows are marked by weathered, slatted doors, slightly out of plumb and in need of fresh paint. When a hurricane force storm blows through at the end of act one - with actual rain pouring down from the sky - one can imagine those doors easily flying off their hinges.
Of course, the storm, the cliffs, the ramshackle hotel, the rope, and the iguana itself are all metaphors for the tenuous hold the play's inhabitants have on life. One more battering and Shannon, especially, could easily be swept out to sea.
In the end, though, it is Nonno's struggle that proves to be the most haunting. With one last poem left to write before his dementia robs him of his ability to remember his own words, he calmly, joyfully endures.