Talkin' Broadway: The Night of the Iguana

Publication date: 
March 1, 2017
Nancy Grossman

American Repertory Theater's production of The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams is a starry, starry night, featuring a cast of notable performers. Much excitement was generated when it was announced that Tony Award-winner James Earl Jones would bring his hefty talent to Cambridge, along with fellow Tony Award honorees Amanda Plummer and Elizabeth Ashley, veteran stage actor Bill Heck, and Emmy Award-winner Dana Delany. Former Hartford Stage Artistic Director Michael Wilson, an experienced interpreter of Williams' work, is at the helm of the play, which premiered on Broadway in 1961 and was last revived there in 1996, starring A.R.T. Founding Member Cherry Jones.

The design team of Derek McLane (scenic), David Lander (lighting), and John Gromada (composition/sound) magically transform the stage at the Loeb Drama Center into the sultry environs of a run-down tourist hotel on the tropical coast of Mexico in the summer of 1940. While the Costa Verde has seen better days, its location at the peak of a hilltop surrounded by a rain forest, with a premier view of a nearby beach, gives the hotel a cachet that contrasts with its accommodations and somewhat less than hospitable proprietress. The small, cell-like rooms, guarded by louvered doors, open onto a rustic veranda that wraps around the building and spills down to a large courtyard, which doubles as the dining area and a gathering space. On the far side is a wall of gauzy, flowing curtains that indicate approaching weather by their movement; in the foreground, a curving stone stairway leads to the unseen beach below.

As the day advances into dusk and evening, and when a torrential rainstorm moves in, Lander's lighting effects signal the time and the forecast, changing hues in the sky on the backdrop. Gromada provides authentic thunder and rain sounds, and fills in other necessary noise, from the repeated honking of a bus horn to a ringing phone and staticky radio broadcasts. Catherine Zuber's costumes help convey the tropical atmosphere, having the locals wear a minimum of clothing, and visitors dress in light-colored, lightweight outfits. By coincidence, on an unusually warm New England night, some members of the audience took to fanning themselves with their programs, as if they too were experiencing the sultry climate.

The setting of The Night of the Iguana, in this dilapidated hotel, reflects the lives of the characters in the play. Reverend Shannon (Heck) is a disgraced preacher without a pulpit who guides low-rent tours to try to keep body and soul together. He is leading a group of Baptist women from Texas through Mexico and is facing trouble for committing an indiscretion with an underage girl. Her aunt/guardian, Judith Fellowes (a forceful Ashley) is ready to string him up, but Shannon is already at the end of his own very frayed rope. He hopes to find refuge by bringing the busload to Costa Verde, run by his old friend Fred. Unfortunately, when they arrive, Fred's wife Maxine (Delany) delivers the news that her husband is dead and she is now the proprietress. There's still a lot of life left in the widow and, although she dallies with a pair of hunky houseboys, Maxine sets her sights on Shannon, encouraging him to stay with her to recharge. He doesn't have a lot of options, but the stakes change when transient artist Hannah Jelkes (Plummer) and her famous poet grandfather Nonno (Jones) arrive for a brief stay. The only other off-season guests at the hotel are a family of four Germans on holiday, whose celebration of news of the burning of London inserts a chill into the otherwise steamy air.

Hannah is a complex character who is not quite what she seems, and Plummer is masterful as she peels back the layers of the role. Among her many sides are the nurturing caretaker she plays with Nonno, the crafty competitor in her dealings with Maxine, and the clearheaded confidante who sees the real Shannon. Heck's performance conveys the massive struggle that Shannon is fighting and losing as his world crumbles around him. The relationship between Hannah and Shannon is pivotal, and I could feel the connection between Plummer and Heck. However, there is a lengthy scene in the final act with just the two of them talking in the courtyard that seems to go on forever. Although their conversation leads to the disposition of the iguana in the title, a vital bit of metaphor in Williams' plot, the impact is blunted by the duration and deadly slow pacing before the quick denouement.

As expected, most of the acting is top-notch. Jones is solid, but Nonno spends far more time reciting poems from behind the louvered door than he does out among the rest of the players. Maxine is oversexed and overburdened, seeking a satisfactory way to live out her remaining good years, and Delany captures that. The role might benefit from a more nuanced portrayal, but she hits the mark on the broader aspects of her character. Susannah Perkins is appropriately self-centered and immature as Charlotte, the teen who torments Shannon. Local treasure and A.R.T. veteran Remo Airaldi is spot on as Jake Latta, another tour guide sent to rescue the Baptist women from Shannon's misguided wandering. Kiko Macan (Pancho) and Mike Turner (Pedro) are sufficiently sweaty and sexy as Maxine's boy toys. Matt Morrison is Hank, the bus driver, and the German family members are played by Richmond Hoxie, Stacia Fernandez, Hannah Sharafian, and Ben Winter.

The Night of the Iguana is marked by Williams' fluid language, his richly drawn characters, and his focus on human frailties. Unlike The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin RoofIguana has had few revivals, although it was also adapted for the 1964 film with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr. One wonders if this A.R.T. production is bound for Broadway, but it may not be sufficiently captivating. The quality of writing, acting, and technical design, taken separately, is at a high level of achievement, but the total experience is less than the sum of its parts.

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