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‘Night of the Iguana’ Showcases Tennessee Williams’ Wit and Wisdom

By Michael J. Yue, Crimson Staff Writer

“I’m tired of conducting services in praise and worship of a senile delinquent!” proclaims Reverend Shannon in Act II of Williams’s 1948 play “The Night of the Iguana.” Given a work where such stark, cutting statements clash with offbeat, often hilarious characters—including a “splendidly physical” family of Nazi tourists, a furious lesbian vocal teacher, two Mexican boys, and a wheelchair-bound poet “ninety-seven years young”—putting on a successful production seems like a daunting task. Yet the American Repertory Theater’s adaptation at the Loeb Drama Center on Feb. 24 successfully found both the comedy and tragedy in Williams’s existential despair, doing justice to a titan of the theatrical canon.

The play centers on the disgraced Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Bill Heck), who comes to stay at a hotel at the edge of the Mexican jungle. Shannon begins the play with a history of rebellion and insanity: He has been locked out of his own church for fornication and heresy, taking a job as a travel agent instead. While catching up with his recently widowed friend Maxine Faulk (Dana Delany), who owns the hotel, he attempts to manage his impatient tour group and avoid a young girl he has been accused of raping. In the midst of all this, the broke painter Hannah Jelkes (Amanda Plummer, known for her roles in “Pulp Fiction” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) and her poet grandfather Nonno (James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader and “The Lion King”’s Mufasa) arrive at the hotel’s doorstep in need of a room, and the bond forged between Shannon and Hannah quickly becomes the centerpiece of the play and the source of its greatest revelations.

A production of this sort of play, in which relationships and dialogue take center stage, lives or dies with the actors. The American Repertory Theater’s actors are first-rate, and it shows. At first, the actors felt almost too disconnected from each other, with Delany’s modern wit clashing with Heck’s Southern drawl. But as the play crept on, the performances found their natural rhythm, culminating in a masterful scene in which Shannon and Hannah discuss their inner demons and the nature of love, death, and life. Heck and Plummer were by turns dominating and apologetic, stubborn and repentant. Seeing the dynamic shift between them was riveting. Jones’s performance is similarly powerful, with his offstage poetic musings lending a gravitas to the often comedic dialogue.

Still, the cast was able to bring out the lighter aspects of the play with Heck and Delany. Their conversations with other characters and with each other carried the perfect comedic timing to deliver Williams’s funniest lines, bringing laughter to the most unexpected scenes.

With such powerhouses as Heck and Plummer, the production team had the opportunity to create a powerful theatrical experience, and they took full advantage of it. The set design evoked both the dilapidation of a hotel in its off-season and the beauty of the Mexican coast, in stark contrast to the production’s powerful evocation of a thunderstorm (for Shannon, a symbol of God’s fury) that closed the first half of the play. The lighting design also portrayed the sun’s setting and rising particularly beautifully, with light filtered through silk curtains adding to an already picturesque set design. Director Michael Wilson constantly maintained several moving parts on stage, adding to the perfect chaos of the first act––his choice of having the Mexican boys, who help maintained the hotel under Maxine within the play, adjusted the set design and provided periodic offstage guitar music was particularly efficient and ingenious.

“Night of the Iguana” starts as a farce but ends in tragedy, and the American Repertory Theater’s production did justice to both aspects of the play. The actors and the production team combined their efforts to adhere to and uplift Williams’s masterpiece, giving full force to the play’s devastation but leaving some inkling of hope: As Hannah says, in times of loss and destruction, the key is simply “to keep on going.”

“The Night of the Iguana” is at the Loeb Drama Center from Mar. 3-18.

— Staff Writer Michael J. Yue can be reached at

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