The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
May 3, 2008
Fans of Tennessee Williams are in for a treat. The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) has revived The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Williams's rewrite of Summer and Smoke, not seen in New York for thirty years. Williams, who compulsively rewrote his plays, preferred this version, although Summer and Smoke, which was filmed with the great Geraldine Page, is far better known.
So—how does it stack up? Pretty well, it seems. In Eccentricities, Williams has dispensed with the violent melodramatic digressions of Summer and Smoke, and focused on Alma Winemiller's miserable home life, and her fumbling, tenuous connection with John Buchanan, the handsome doctor next door. Williams has also dispensed with the archetypal natures of the characters (he's flesh, she's spirit) and simply presents them with heartbreaking truth and accuracy. Eccentricities has a tightness, clarity, and poetry that once again remind us of Williams's greatness.
TACT gives Eccentricities a thoughtful and spare production. Eschewing directorial high concepts, Jenn Thompson trusts the play and lets it stand on its own. Bill Clarke's simple scenic design—a scrim with an image of the famous "Angel of the Fountain"; some furniture and flowing drapes for the rectory—captures the stultifying world of Glorious Hill, Mississippi pre-World War I. Lucrecia Briceno's lighting suitably evokes the gloomy chill of a Deep South winter.
Alma Winemiller is a notoriously difficult role to pull off. In unskilled hands, the character can be a tiresome, mannered hysteric. At the preview I saw, Mary Bacon showed the beginnings of a fine Alma. (Given the tight off-off-Broadway rehearsal and preview period, this is an achievement in and of itself.) While she nails the character's exteriors—the affectations and self-dramatizing—she hasn't yet located that core of longing, Williams's odd mixture of fragility and toughness. She is magnetic in the final scene, however, when she deftly pulls off Alma's merry shift from town eccentric to town pariah. (She's aided in this by the very smart costume designs of David Toser.)
Williams knew a thing or two about writing for actors and the supporting cast tear into their roles like starving dogs on pork joints. Todd Gearheart, in the decidedly more subdued role of John, is simple, grounded, and sympathetic, an excellent counterpoint to Alma's nerves and flights. Larry Keith is excellent as the Rev. Winemiller, a repressed and repressive man complicit in his family's misery, and simultaneously wounded by it. Nora Chester is tragic and funny as the mad Mrs. Winemiller, obsessed by sweets and locked in memories of her sister's scandalous end. Chester shows us all sides of this woman; her pain and her childlike manipulations. And Darrie Lawrence absolutely tears the place up as Mrs. Buchanan, a wonderfully rapacious Williams monster-mother. Mrs. Buchanan, a Mississippi dowager with the soul of Catherine de Medici, has a joy in her own greed and casual cruelties and Lawrence makes it sing.
If you're a fan of Williams—and if you care about American theatre, who isn't?—take this opportunity to see this unfairly neglected work.