One may not immediately think of The Night of the Iguana as an American classic even though the film version is considered a classic and it was a success by every measure. Tennessee Williams fans themselves are content to see it or hear of it onstage maybe once a decade, if even that frequently since its debut in 1961. The A.R.T.’s recent production pays homage to the time period without becoming a stale museum piece. Tennessee Williams may not be a favored son of every American, but he is a recent one. Loeb Drama Center had a clever setup when I attended which allowed the audience to ponder correspondence from archives as well as attempt to bang some literary work out with Royal typewriters rented out by Arlington’s own Cambridge Typewriter.
Since we are living in the future and not the past, I will mention ART’s gender neutral bathrooms. I mention the gender neutral bathrooms because I’m not sure if this would have delighted or horrified Tennessee Williams. To think of him as woke–no–he was not according to our standards, but he was more aware than many others of his day about people at the margins. I also mention gender neutral bathrooms because I heard a lot of disgruntled murmuring before the curtain rose. May the A.R.T. enjoy the grammatically correct, confused and backhandedly polite letters they are probably receiving about the bathrooms! If they want someone to write a strongly worded retort in support of the bathrooms, they know where to find me. (Editors note: me too.)
The set evokes a cliffside heat akin to a mirage. Light and sound effects modify the setting smoothly or abruptly as necessary completing the beachside fantasy with glorious sunsets and torrential downpours. Costumes and set pieces are period and setting specific with all of the extra work that entails. Scenery and furniture are functional and highly visible for the audience while still able to suggest areas of privacy or relative increased distance.
In The Night of the Iguana, the very wrong Reverend Shannon (Bill Heck) guides his tour group to a cheap hotel on the Mexican coast for a night. It’s a refuge that he clearly needs which also offers up a potential future with either the widow hotelier Maxine (Dana Delany) or a kindred spirit , Hannah (Amanda Plummer), a struggling artist caring for her grandfather Nonno (James Earl Jones). Reminders of the outside world in the forms of a group of German tourists and Shannon’s mutinous tour group are still no match for Shannon’s inner demons.
As a person who grew up on a tropical island the premise is familiar: while locals play the world’s tiniest guitars in non-sympathy, tourists and not quite locals mix it up and have the best possible time they can, which is not that great and, on the realistic level, sad and pretty lonely. This production is clear on existing hierarchies of the time which can seem like a harsh criticism until one recalls the lessons of the present day. A warmonger in a swimsuit may always possess more power than anyone else so long as he has access to money. Suffering doesn’t automatically entitle the sufferer, and not all earthly rewards are nobly earned.
Amanda Plummer unfolds Hannah Jelkes’ many sides, far from the femme fatale and more of a fille intelligente as she plays it. Hers is a performance of understated, good humored dignity–something New Englanders may appreciate. James Earl Jones’ voice acting talents lend gravitas to Nonno’s poems and his physical acting provokes both laughter and tears. Bill Heck (Shannon) has clearly been working out. I can only hope he’s downing electrolytes and protein shakes between shows. He brings an explosive physicality to a role which creates an equal and opposite response in Dana Delany (Maxine).
When emoting in a situation where such lauded actors as Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis have done so before, one casual option is to imitate them. Instead, the production staff has allowed their major trio of Nonno, Hannah and Shannon to guide this Iguana to slightly different places. A.RT. regular Remo Airaldi injects a spare bit part with flashes of humorous fire. Elizabeth Ashley’s portrayal of a responsible butch Texan schoolmarm embodies indignation at Heck’s inappropriate antics. Kudos also to Institute students Ben Winter and Hannah Sharafian for achieving peak kraut in these trying times.
Iguana holds a somewhat less than fond, but more than kind view of whom we are as humans. We yearn for beautiful permanence which is impossible. We yearn for control and obedience in a chaotic and irreverent world. The art we make shifts forms from experience to short story towards a staged play and then a film and back again. When presented with an opportunity, the imperfect can still choose to help each other without expectation of reward since there exists an idea that our lives are more than what we eat and where we sleep tonight.
The Night of the Iguana will be playing through March 18. Next up for the end of the 2016/2017 season at the Loeb Drama Center will be Arrabal, a dance theater piece centered around one Argentinian woman’s struggle to understand the violent history of her country.