The Night of the Iguana
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 8, 2008
O Courage, could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell.
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?
Above, the last stanza of a poem by Jonathan Coffin, composed when he is "97 years young...the oldest living and practicing poet on earth." Much of The Night of the Iguana is encapsulated in that tiny bit of doggerel. When Peter Judd, who portrays Coffin in T. Schreiber Studio's extraordinary production of this extraordinary drama, at last burst forth with it in the midst of the emotionally involving stories that play out around his character, a rare sort of catharsis took root for me. This production, directed by Terry Schreiber, makes a strong case that Iguana may be the most powerful of all of Tennessee Williams's plays. It is indisputably must-see theatre.
The Night of the Iguana happens during a single September day in 1940 at the Costa Verde hotel on the west coast of Mexico. This establishment—which has seen better days—is run by Maxine Faulk, an earthy American woman who has only recently lost her much-older husband Fred. When we first meet Maxine, she has just had sex with one of the two young Mexican men who work for her; the second, apparently waiting his turn, is lolling in a hammock strung between a pair of palm trees on the hotel's veranda. Maxine's only guests, we discover, are a German family, vacationing in the sun and celebrating news (via radio) of the Nazi blitz that has set London ablaze. (This, as Williams says elsewhere, is the social background of the play.)
Two parties arrive at the Costa Verde on this day, and they collide with one another and with Maxine. The survivors of the collisions are, as Coffin's poem portends, the ones with sufficient courage.
The first on the scene is Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a tour guide who was once a minister but now makes his living leading troops of American ladies through exotic locales in the tropics. His penchant for getting too intimately involved with at least one of these ladies per tour gets him into trouble: in this case, he's allowed a teenage girl to seduce him (as he puts it) and is in real danger of being slapped with a statutory rape charge should be try to return to America. Shannon is an old pal of Maxine's and he has brought his current crop of tourists to the Costa Verde so that he can rest and regroup.
The second to show up unannounced is Hannah Jelkes, a Nantucket spinster who travels with her grandfather Jonathan Coffin, whom she calls Nonno. She and Nonno have been living as itinerant artists, traveling around the world and earning their keep at various resorts, he by reciting his poetry and she by sketching patrons and selling her watercolors. Business has been bad, and they are now broke. Hannah has wheeled Nonno up the steep hill to the Costa Verde because she can find nowhere else in town that will have them.
What happens when Hannah and Shannon meet forms the arc of this gorgeous play—an exploration of two very disparate souls at the ends of their ropes, trying to work themselves free. The language is as evocative and poetic as in the very best of Williams's work, the plotting is taut and always entirely convincing, and the interplay among Hannah, Shannon, and Maxine is intense and involving. Behind and around them, the Germans, the Mexican boys, and the American tourists (represented by Charlotte, the teenager with a penchant for Shannon, and her dangerously tough guardian, Miss Fellowes) engage in the mundane and everyday. Framed by them, the singular Nonno diligently crafts a new poem, the one quoted above—the first new one he's made in more than a decade.
Schreiber's direction never shows; it's as natural as walking. But he's worked with his designers to bring the Costa Verde to miraculous life, with George Allison's lush, inviting set (complete with palm trees, a working water pump, and even a thunderstorm!) setting the scene perfectly; and Karen Ann Ledger's costumes, Andrea Boccanfuso's lighting, and Chris Rummel's sound all contributing strongly to the ambience.
Schreiber has brought forth exceptional work from all of his actors as well. Even the players with the smallest roles—like Peter Aguero as one of Shannon's rival tour guides or Alecia Medley as the naive and/or nymphomaniac Charlotte—offer vivid, memorable performances. The four principals do much more, reaching deeply into the hearts and minds and spirits of their characters and letting us understand what's making each of them tick. Janet Saia is a tough, sensual Maxine, but she always allows us to see the dissatisfaction and loneliness that haunts this woman. Denise Fiore gives us a grounded, rather than ethereal, Hannah, a woman who has learned how to survive and learned how to extract bits of happiness from a less-than-ideal life situation; she feels at once ephemeral and very tired, so that the journey she recounts and the journey she takes during the play both seem very convincing.
Derek Roche is excellent as Shannon. If he doesn't quite pull off the few moments of bravado, he bares Shannon's noble, battered soul quite fearlessly.
And anchoring the play in a supremely fine performance, veteran actor Peter Judd embodies Nonno exquisitely. We really do believe he's 97, and we really do see that, when his mind is sharp (as it still sometimes can be), he's as young as he ever was. Judd's work here, which leads the piece toward emotional climaxes in both acts, is essential.
So you really don't want to miss a rare chance to see one of the less-frequently done Williams masterworks as it was meant to be seen. Indeed, I'm not sure I've ever left a production of Williams more exalted or moved by the rich understanding of humanity that our greatest American dramatic poet possessed.