Tennessee Williams's later play Clothes for A Summer Hotel is an imagined post-mortal meeting between celebrated Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his estranged and mentally broken wife Zelda, with a few of their contemporaries and some of Zelda's asylum population thrown into the mix.
Cyndy A. Marion and the White Horse Theater Company are to be congratulated for taking on this remarkable albeit difficult piece. This play was Williams's last script to premiere on Broadway during his lifetime (in 1980) and is a departure from the earlier work that established his illustrious career. Yet Clothes for a Summer Hotel remains an infinitely fascinating script on many levels—not least for the semi-autobiographical elements inherent in the text. The play, in certain respects, is Williams's Shavian-like argument with himself about the nature of creative expression and artistic temperament. Or, in Zelda's case, Fitzgerald's suppression of his wife's writing career (she published a novel, Save Me The Waltz, which infuriated him) and her ballet dancing aspirations (which he found ridiculous and a waste of time) that, along with his alcoholism and her instability, purportedly fueled her descent into "madness." She spent the last ten years of their marriage in and out of psychiatric clinics. Williams takes the view of Nancy Milford who in her celebrated 1970 book Zelda: A Biography clearly presents evidence of Fitzgerald actively thwarting his wife's attempts at creating her own individual artistic identity while using her life and their lives together as material in his own work (including passages from her personal diaries placed verbatim in his first published novel This Side Of Paradise).
Zelda Fitzgerald once wrote, "Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home."
In Williams's script she shouts at him "What was important to you was to absorb and devour!"
Clothes for a Summer Hotel is set on the grounds of Highlands Hospital ,the asylum in North Carolina where Zelda died in a fire in 1948. Williams calls the piece a ghost play and director Marion and her cast navigate well through the tricky script, clearly conveying its multiple realties. The characters must act out their pasts and the present (which seems to be a clinical after-life asylum exercise for Zelda), with the full knowledge of their own future deaths combined with an awareness of it all being played out on a stage in a theatre for an audience.
"Shadows of lives, tricks of light sometimes illuminate things," says one of Zelda's doctors.
What does not work as well is the pacing of the scenes, which falls into the trap of mirroring the slow and haunting melancholy incidental music and rarely alters from beginning to end. More variation in rhythm and tone would have brought all these "ghosts" a bit more to life for the audience.
Standouts in Marion's gathered ensemble include Kristen Vaughn and Peter J. Crosby as the tragic and embattled Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, emblems of the excesses of 1920s Jazz Age here made human if only for a moment in time. Also, Montgomery Sutton in the dual roles of the Intern and Edouard; Mary Goggin, who excels in two comedic turns as Becky and Mrs. Patrick Campbell; Lisa Riegel and Rod Sweitzer, both making strong impressions as longtime Fitzgerald friends Sara Murphy and Ernest Hemingway; and Kyle Lamar Mitchell, who grabs our attention as a nurse and a nightclub singer.
John C. Sheffler's impressionistic set and Debra Lee Siegel's lights perfectly capture the mood of the piece and provide the performers with a well functioning backdrop. Adam Coffiia's costumes effectively establish Williams's singular universe.
At the end of his life F. Scott Fitzgerald considered himself an alcoholic failure. He harbored resentment and blamed Zelda for his wasting talent and inability to work.
"Liquor, madness, more or less the same thing," says Zelda.
While the unusual Clothes for A Summer Hotel may not be everyone's cup of tea, White Horse Theater Company gives a credible production of this interesting script and fans of Williams should absolutely take advantage of this rare opportunity to see the play on stage. And so, too, should fans of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald venture out to catch this intriguing, though at times oblique, view of their lives.
"Adjustments had to be made to faiths that had faded as candles into daybreak."