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Like most American playwrights, Tennessee Williams has built his career by exploiting certain characters and situations which he made his own from the start. His people have missed the boat in life, have gotten by without adjusting to the "normal world"; they always find too late that their personalities have hardened like plaster in the wrong mold. Williams lets their fevers go livid in phantasmagoric night worlds where they soliloquize on private terrors, and create minor crises for each other, knowing what they do there will reverberate no further. His plays deal with nostalgia and hope, they have the static quality of a dream rather than the dynamic quality of fact. Williams' drama is a drama of mood, and he trades in language and gesture rather than action.
It seemed in recent years as though Williams' formula was running thin; that he was serving up only faint imitations of his early plays. Don Bacon, however, has come up with Confessional, a play that Williams published last year and has never been given a professional production. Williams hasn't quite risen phoenix-like from the ashes, but he's regained enough of the old power in this short play to provide a strange and effecting evening.
With the play set in a run down bar on the Pacific coast, we first see a middle-aged alcoholic hussy named Leona romp around the bar, addressing its apathetic customers. She has, it seems, beaten up a girl now whimpering in the ladies room. She talks about this, and about her relationship with the girl, but she gradually slips into the past and future. While she talks, she plays her favorite song on the jukebox, over and over; it serves as a background, an aural prop for the kind of good-time life she would like to think she's leading. She, like most of the "regulars" who show up that night, is a drifter whose fever to move on turns her into a garrulous, unattractive mama, every time she stops her trailer, her loneliness drives her to shack up with any man she can find, but her cares are always divorced from the present.
The music from the jukebox stops, the other characters in the bar come into focus. We meet Leona's latest boyfriend who has shacked up in her trailer. Unlike Leona, he doesn't live in the past or the future but he doesn't really live in the present either. He exists in a total narcissistic haze, boozing on Leona's money and returning sexual compensations. Two homosexuals enter, an Amos and Andy combination: a gawky farm boy from Iowa who is bicycling to Mexico and a Hollywood dandy with gestures reminiscent of the Oceanic roll. We also meet an alcoholic doctor who's lost his license but still practices clandestinely; Violet, a lachrymose bar girl whose only way to approach people is with her hands under the table; and a forty-seven year old short-order cook named Steve who says that he must make do with the scraps in life--Violet is one of the scraps.
Once this group is assembled, the play becomes a series of movements, each centered on one or two characters. There is no plot in the normal sense, no unity of action. The two homosexuals sit at one table, Violet and Steve at another, and the rest sit down at the bar, creating three self-enclosed worlds whose only thread of communication is Leona, moving about like some caged animal. Nervously boastful, muddled but penetrative. Leona is the great middle-aged screaming child who has been brought to perfection as an American theater type: a misty but lynx-eyed observer who holds all the cards and provides a shrewd running commentary on the others.
In each movement, one or two of the characters engage in a confessional, mingled with small talk, posturing, aimless reveries and recollections while the others remain frozen. Each person reveals a shadowy life which moves, like Leona's trailer, any way the wind blows, occasionally forming temporary relationships, and enduring the series of minor disasters inherent in such an existence. They have all, as one of them puts it, "lost the capacity for being surprised" all except for the wide-eyed innocent from Iowa. On this particular night, he's been initiated into the homosexual experience. Next time, he says, "I won't make the mistake of showing any excitement or pleasure." It seems as though Williams is playing the old American theme of the vacuity of our uprooted lives, of weeds breeding in the gilding tank, echoing Biff in Death of a Salesman, "I just can't take hold of some kind of life." But he adds something more. At one point, he brings the bar owner, the only character with roots to his "confessional." The bar owner says that he is content running a small place with a steady profit and with hearing the confessions of his regulars, but he ends his speech with a quiet despair disguised as complacency: "I'll die in the night and I hope it don't wake me up, that I just slip away, quietly." Something is drastically wrong with the whole fabric of society; the bar's one contact with the outside world all evening comes when the doctor goes to deliver a dead baby in a trailer cord. He allows the mother to hemorrhage to death.
The play is very undramatic. Williams relies heavily on his uncanny ear for colloquial speech, and his ability to not let slip a false line. The script, however, has several defects. It does not develop the potentialities it introduces and misses the brutal impact it could have had if the plot and characters were more fully developed. Moreover, the long soliloquies which are made to carry most of the burden reveal little about the characters and at least one, Violet's, is totally superfluous. The play is hard to digest, but it does leave one with enough of its strange, bittersweet mood for a successful evening.
The production itself is first rate. Don Bacon's recreation of the atmosphere of a run down sawdust bar will warm the hearts of inveterate bargoers. The acting is very fine. Hope Schlorholtz gives a powerful portrayal of the burnt-out hussy Leona. She conveys the ambiguity of tender nature turned corrosive through failed aspirations. Tom Wells looks like he learned his part of the Hollywood faggot while listening to a James Brown record. He and John Rudman, the Iowa corn boy, produce some very comic visual effects flirting at their table. Terry Steiner deserves credit for salvaging the deficient role of Violet with alternating expressions of despondency and wide-eyed lechery.
Go get your Loeb Ex tickets. While Williams hasn't redeemed his lost leader status, he is still producing more than most off-broad way touters of the void--that is, a void with soul.
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