‘Tennessee Continuum: Two One-Act Plays by Tennessee Williams’
Through July 3
Washington Shakespeare Company
1101 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA.
$25-$35; pay what you can for Saturday matinees
Like the name suggests, Washington Shakespeare Company is a little Bard-centric, but the Rosslyn-based troupe successfully interprets modern playwrights too, particularly Tennessee Williams. Currently the company is presenting two rarely performed pieces from different phases of the gay playwright’s epic career.
Though ostensibly not a bit alike, “Portrait of a Madonna” and “The Gnädiges Fräulein” (together billed as “Tennessee Continuum: Two One-Act Plays by Tennessee Williams), are both poignant and inhabited by tragic characters. They share some of the inescapable Williams’ themes of unrequited attachments and survival in an unkind world.
Written in 1940, “Madonna” is a precursor to Williams’ later, greater works. Set in a grim apartment in an unnamed city, it’s the story of Lucretia Collins, a kooky maiden lady who is haunted by an ill-fated romance from her genteel, small town southern past. Now poor and alone, the aging preacher’s daughter loses her mind: She believes the man she once loved invades her bedroom nightly to “indulge his senses” as she rather delicately puts it. When she calls the apartment management for help, they summon mental health professionals and not the cops.
Sensitively staged by Lynn Sharp Spears, the one act reeks with the stuff that made the young Williams famous: faded belles, gentleman callers and glimpses into madness — Annetta Dexter Sawyer’s Lucretia is certifiably nuts. Slice Hick’s empathetic, human porter and Bob Sheire as the mocking elevator operator give an idea of the variety of characters that a lady might encounter in the sometimes uncertain outside world.
In “Madonna’s” final scene, a kindly doctor (here played by Christopher Henley sporting a Tyrone Power-inspired haircut) comes to escort an increasingly disconnected Lucretia to a state asylum. Williams would rewrite this same situation a few years concerning another distressed lady — Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Interestingly, after seeing Jessica Tandy play Lucretia in a West Coast production of Madonna in 1947, he cast her as Blanche in the original production of “Streetcar.”
After intermission, it’s “The Gnädiges Fräulein,” a very funny paean to human survival written in 1966 when Williams was no longer the darling of critics. In fact, this one act (which translates from German as “Gracious Young Lady”) originally closed on Broadway in less than a week. Set in Williams’ beloved Florida Keys, the oddball comedy was his first foray into the absurd and, many say, an allegory of his own artistic life.
In search of a scoop, society reporter Polly (Mundy Spears) shows up at an unconventional guest house owned by no-nonsense Molly (Emily Webbe). It’s a strange place: The front porch is dripping with blood and a vicious Cocaloony bird (Karin Abromaitis) is circling the property intimidating everyone it meets. And the tenants are equally unusual. Wearing just a tiny loincloth, pulchritudinous and platinum blond Indian Joe (James Finley) struts about and says very little. The orange-haired title Fraulein (Karin Rosnizeck) was once a performer. Now deaf and blind in one eye, she earns her keep by battling increasingly fearsome Cocaloonies for fisherman’s castoff catch down at the docks. When not trading Williams’ gloriously crafted barbs, frenemies Polly and Molly smoke joints and engage in furious, highly sexualized synchronized rocking.
Gay director Jay Hardee elicits just right performances from an excellent cast. His inspired staging effortlessly coaxes the show’s many aspects — campy humor, menace, and melancholy — to the fore. Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s nonintrusive set cleverly morphs from tenement flat to seaside abode with very little fuss.
“Tennessee Continuum” is now running in repertory at Artisphere with a production of “Night and Day” by Tom Stoppard — another of the company’s favorite playwrights.