En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams

nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 9, 2013

"It's funny...I was born in Mississippi, raised in St. Louis, I spent my happiest days in New Orleans and Key West, and yet they call me Tennessee."  So begins En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams, a solo show written and performed by William Shuman, directed by Ruis Woertendyke.  The celebrated playwright, now dead 30 years and dressed in a white suit and blue shirt, pours himself a drink and reflects upon his family, his work, his love/sex life, and award-winning posthumous productions. 

Shuman, introduced to Williams' work portraying the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie decades ago, gives us a Tennessee who is gentle, thoughtful, somewhat disappointed and depressed, and quietly humorous.  He relaxes in his large wicker chair, or strolls around his room, near his desk with a small stack of his works and an old-fashioned typewriter, or lounges on the stool near his whiskey bottle. 

At first, Tennessee, born Thomas Lanier Williams III in 1911, denies that his mother Edwina is Menagerie's Amanda (although Edwina thought so) or that his sister Rose is Laura, and adds that his Dad never showed up in any of his works.  He also mentions his brother Dakin, who placed him in a mental asylum.  Later, though, the writer admits that Menagerie carries "the essence of my sister" and that his father found his way into Big Daddy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennessee says he primarily thought of himself as a poet rather than a playwright, but that the poetry in his characters' dialogue made his plays shine.  He tells of works that fail under one title, go through changes, and emerge under new titles. He prefers plays to prose, noting that prose doesn't work unless the reader has "an inner stage", while as for a play, "...it is there. Whether the audience understands it or not, it is really there."

He reveals that the sobriquet Tennessee--"I've told so many versions of that story, I don't know what's true anymore"--came about when he changed his name and age to qualify for a playwriting contest for which he received a consolation prize.  He tells of struggles with money, and a brief stint in Hollywood to pen a script for Lana Turner: "When I realized what I had to do for the movies, poverty didn't look that bad."  He tells of plenty of sex with men yet falling in love only three times, including with one man he called Horse: "I'll let you imagine how he earned that name."   

He complains about schoolteachers and scholars "using my texts to exorcise their own demons" when the plays have enough demons of their own.  His later plays weren't as well received as his better-known hits, but he didn't want to keep churning out the same old stuff.

Shuman's excellent portrayal is aided by snippets of smooth, slow jazz, including a rendition of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee". 

En Avant! gives us a pleasant excursion into the mind, heart, and struggles of one of America's most significant and most enduring playwrights.

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