For most aficionados of the theater, few names ignite our innards quite like Tennessee Williams. While The Glass Menagerie and, to a lesser extent, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire are all revived with some regularity, The Night of the Iguana is one of his lesser-seen works.
Lucky us, there’s an unforgettably perfect revival playing through March 18 at the American Repertory Theater with an all-star cast and a top-shelf creative team. The extraordinary Michael Wilson directs a brilliant cast that includes Elizabeth Ashley, Dana Delany, Bill Heck, James Earl Jones, and Amanda Plummer.
Bill Heck stars as Shannon, a defrocked Episcopal priest whose demons have driven him to Mexico. I spoke to Heck recently and asked him about the relevancy of Iguana, reuniting with Michael Wilson, and whether or not Broadway is in the future.
A lot of critics seem to feel that The Night of the Iguana is either his best play by far or way down on the list. Why do you think it’s so divisive?
That’s a great question. To give you a little context of where I’m coming from, it was the first play of his that I ever read way back in high school when I was first discovering theater, so I have a particular attachment to it. It’s one of his later plays. Elizabeth Ashley, who worked with Tennessee and knew him well back in the day, claims this is his most autobiographical play. I think that not only had his worldview expanded, just having come later in his life, but it also maybe struck home with him a little more. He was also arguably more willing to expose himself, be a little more vulnerable with his contradictions and more interested in his contradictions, perhaps. I think it’s upsetting; it’s one of his more upsetting plays in terms of what it demands that we look at in ourselves and in the human experience in so far as the contradictions that exist. It’s a really unflinching look at the nastiness that goes alongside the beauty and how maybe they’re one and the same. It requires some bravery in how it makes us look at ourselves. It requires, perhaps, a more rigorous eye, which our director, Michael Wilson, has over and over. I think the play, instead of becoming a sort of meditation on existence, actually becomes really dangerous. It goes into some spiritually scary places, that if we’re doing our job properly can be pretty exciting and somewhat harrowing.
Do you think that this is a good time for a major revival of this play?
Yeah, I really do. The current events of our country and, certainly, the world in general—it’s become more pronounced in our country—the schism that exists between people’s perspective and their experience and their ideas about what is proper and what is not. The voice that the extremes are getting is particularly pronounced and this play is about how those extremes are really just extensions of the same human experience. It doesn’t mean they can’t butt heads; it doesn’t mean they aren’t in some way totally opposed, but it is saying that they come from the same place. We’re all people in a world where there are beautiful things and there are ugly things; where there are terrifying things and there are sanctuaries. I think it talks a little bit about how these extremes of perspectives can come from running either away from some of the truth of human experience, or trying to find a truth in that human experience and scrambling to what feels closest. And so you grab onto that most tightly, but maybe when you do that it pulls you away from this other wide swath of reality or actuality. So I think the play talks about how to really embrace the truths of experience and to kind of crack your heart open to all of it. That’s maybe where you can find other people, that’s maybe where you can find yourself and how you exist relative to the whole of existence. I know these are all very large, abstract ideas, but I think part of the beauty of the play is that it really poetically and actively gives texture to those ideas.
You had such success with The Orphans’ Home Cycle, your last major outing with Michael Wilson. What is it like working with him again?
It’s f***ing dreamy! I think he’s a remarkably sensitive and bold artist who has a truly extraordinary empathy for the characters in the plays that he tackles, for what those characters are saying to us as the viewer, to what it means to be a storyteller in the world. He is incredibly supportive of his actors. He creates a very safe space while at the same time challenging them to bring out their best work. He’s very inventive, very subtle, and nuanced but also not afraid of large ideas. I think he’s a really special artist and I very much value our relationship, personally and artistically. I feel very, very pleased to be back in the saddle with him.
I think it’s so crazy that Elizabeth Ashley actually knew Tennessee Williams. What is it like having someone on the team that knew him?
It’s crazy. The work is so consuming that there’s not as much space as I would like to let that directly enter the room, at least in terms of her regaling us with tales, which I hope to do once we have a little more time. That said, she obviously has such an immediate attachment to the work. In the smallest ways and in the largest ways, she has a real understanding of Tennessee’s intention behind his writing. She’s able to parse all the specifics of how his life affected what he wrote and where his head was at with regard to certain things. She has this irreverent spirit, but coupled with Tennessee’s work, it just kind of magnifies the other in this way that’s really special. She’s nuclear. It’s amazing.
I have to ask you, with such an incredible team of people working on this show, it’s hard to imagine that there aren’t plans for this show to transfer to New York. What can you say about that?
Nothing, really, to be very disappointing. I know certain parties have discussed it, but I don’t know to what degree. I mean, I hope there’s a future of it one way or another because I feel like it’s an important work for people to see. I think it would be lovely to share it with as many people as possible.