“The Night of the Iguana” is Tennessee Williams’ darkly tragicomic 1961 musing on humanity’s difficulties in hanging on to love, faith and grace, set on the eve of World War II when all three commodities were in short supply. Like his earlier “Camino Real,” the play carts a distinctive basket of disreputables to a backwater Mexican location and challenges them to talk and think their way out. Michael Wilson’s starry revival at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., wobbles in the first half, but ends in triumph thanks largely to some of Williams’ best all-time writing, a superb turn by Amanda Plummer and a cameo-to-end-all-cameos from the great James Earl Jones.
At her run-down Costa Verde Hotel on Mexico’s west coast, the recently-widowed Maxine Faulk (Dana Delany) sees a chance to hang on to life and trade when an old Texan pal comes to call. But the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Bill Heck), now dissipated and defrocked, is in no shape to offer succor. Reduced to serving as a local guide, he’s under investigation for misbehavior with minor damsels, one of whom is among a party of Baptist ladies fighting Montezuma’s revenge in a rickety tour bus under miserable heat.
A party of sweaty, jaunty German tourists sprawl across the premises, joined by a pair of itinerants no less down on their luck than Shannon. Hannah Jelkes (Plummer), a sketch artist of oddly sedate mien, has in tow her elderly grandfather (Jones), a minor poet “97 years young,” as she proudly announces. Penniless, she will try to earn a few coppers while her “Nonno” strains to complete his final verses before his sweet bird of youth, so to speak, flies off once and for all.
In the first half, these folks batter and chafe against each other like cats in a sack. As the imperious, long-suffering leader of the vacationers, Elizabeth Ashley storms on like a juggernaut to protect ward Charlotte (a pert Susannah Perkins) and kick Shannon’s behind, but though she enlivens every scene, she’s still unable to bring momentum to a dramatic clock that’s barely been wound up. The inciting incidents—Shannon’s crisis of faith and resulting scandals—all take place in the past, leaving us to endure plenty of plot chatter but little of the erotic thrum we remember from “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” (The first half’s most pressing dramatic question is whether the bus’s ignition key will be pried from the protagonist’s pocket.)
Wilson’s choices compound the problems. Most “Iguana” productions gain sultriness from the damp rainforest flora and fauna feeding on the hotel’s exterior, but set designer Derek McLane’s craggy, vegetation-free flagstone terrace just accentuates the dry exposition. The Germans’ buffoonery adds neither menace nor sting, while Maxine’s two lewd houseboys are played by jaunty fratboy types, whose guitar strumming and ballad singing soothe rather than disturb.
Meanwhile, Heck and Delany still seem to be feeling their way into their roles. He lurches and shouts with insufficient variety or vulnerability, while Delany is just a nice, long-suffering gal pal, not yet hinting at any rapacious, high-stakes need to draw Shannon into her web.
All that said, a first-rate, terrifying, act-ending thunderstorm executed by McLane and lighting designer David Lander takes us into a wholly energized second half. It’s as if Williams’ real interest in bringing us here was to get to the point where Shannon is stripped of both job and standing and is close to losing his mind, so that saintly Hannah can rise to the rescue with poppyseed tea and sympathy.
Their lengthy confrontation is one of the very best two-handers Williams ever wrote, worthy of comparison to Laura and the Gentleman Caller in “The Glass Menagerie.” Lashed into a hammock to endure the D.T.s, in parallel with the iguana Pancho and Pedro have tied to the veranda prior to dismemberment, Shannon is forced to remain still as one last great Williams character comes to offer him the kindness of strangers.
It is difficult to imagine this showdown between Shannon and Hannah performed better. Plummer has always excelled in playing delusional creatures with a sense of the fantastic: Think of her Tony-winning turn in “Agnes of God,” or the hysterical Honey Bunny of “Pulp Fiction.” Her Hannah retains that otherworldly quality, but it’s grounded by age and experience now. Plummer completely, believably embodies this self-described Nantucket spinster who takes the world as it comes with no little wit and an endless supply of charity. As her conviction makes Hannah’s words ring out like an eloquent church service, Heck rises to the occasion, gradually and tenderly pulling Shannon into a transcendent state of hope revived. This is acting to be savored.
And then there’s Nonno, who has only a few short scenes to personally encapsulate Williams’ theme of art’s power to transcend earthly misery. Perhaps no actor on earth is better equipped to do so than Jones. Utterly lionesque, with his Frederick Douglass-style mane and those familiar vocal cadences, he’s in total command of his artistry. From the chuckling, confused reminiscences of past glories to the desperate effort to bring one last poem to completion, he embodies the struggle in which each of us is engaged and which animated Williams’ career: to know what our purpose is, and live up to it before our personal hourglass sand runs out.