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Desire will satisfy, surprise, shock

by Jules Becker
Thursday May 11, 2017

L to R): Eric McGowan and Katie Flanagan. Photo by Richard Hall/Silverline Images
L to R): Eric McGowan and Katie Flanagan. Photo by Richard Hall/Silverline Images  

Desire, Zeitgeist Stage Company, Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 20. 617-933-8600 or

No American playwright has focused on human passion-both expressed and repressed-as poetically as Tennessee Williams. That probing, as theater buffs know full well, has produced such gems as "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." Even Williams aficionados may not be familiar with the prolific dramatist's more than 60 short stories, which also explore matters of the heart. The New England premiere of "Desire," a sextet of adaptations of six of them (first staged in 2015), may alternately satisfy, surprise and even shock theatergoers at Boston Center for the Arts' highly intimate Black Box Theatre. Still, Zeitgeist Stage is giving this distinctive approach to Williams' eclectic short stories a welcome Hub visit.

As Zeitgeist artistic director David J. Miller explains in his playbill notes, he frequently traveled to Hartford Stage for their 10-year celebration of Williams (1999-2009). Company head Michael Wilson engaged the playwrights who wrote the approximately 20-minute adaptations -some set in the stories' different 20th century decades and others in the present-and directed the original production of "Desire." Under Miller's smooth direction, a strong nine-actor ensemble quickly and convincingly assumes very different roles in stories ranging from New Orleans to St. Louis and Cape Cod.

The first play, "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin" by Beth Henley (based on a 1950 Williams story of the same name) finds a piano student named Roe preparing to accompany a young violinist named Richard Miles in an unnamed small southern town in 1920. Henley, clearly a disciple (witness her "Crimes of the Heart"), has captured the changing moods and fortunes of vulnerable Roe, Richard and especially Williams-like Tom. Margaret McFadden has all of Roe's insecurity and growing fatalism, and Sam Terry is properly enigmatic as Richard. Jon Vallente is a standout as volatile Tom.

David Grimm, who displayed a good ear for dialogue several seasons ago with the Huntington Theatre Company in his IRNE Award-winning new play "The Miracle at Naples," does so again with vivid romantic volleys in "Oriflamme" (adapted from a 1974 story of the same name). Here Anna, who works at a department story, dresses to the proverbial nines in a red silk dress and meets park bench frequenter Rodney, also known as Hooch. Lindsay Beamish nicely balances Anna's adventurousness (evoked in the title allusion to a medieval banner) and her periodic moments of self-restraint, recalling both Blanche Dubois in "Streetcar" and Alma in "Summer and Smoke." Damon Singletary has Rodney's blend of tenacity and charm.

Elizabeth Egloff's bizarrely comic "Attack of the Giant Tent Worms" (based on the 1980 story 'Tent Worms') rounds out the first half. Writer Billy's obsession with the title Cape Cod, late August nemeses and an eventual fire- special kudos to Michael Clark Wonson's nuanced lighting- may have Tracy Letts fans calling to mind the latter's somewhat allegorical play "Bug." Alexander Rankine has the right mix of emotional turmoil and paranoia as Billy, and Margaret Dransfield captures wife Clara's callousness in this lesser short.

John Guare, who richly questioned origins and inner life in his seminal "Six Degrees of Separation", begins the second half on a high note with "You Lied to Me About Centralia" (adapted from Williams' 1948 "Portrait of a Girl in Glass). Where Tom Stoppard focused on two minor "Hamlet " characters in his "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," Guare likewise gives prominence to the minor Jim the Gentleman Caller of "The Glass Menagerie" in 1940's St. Louis-set "Centralia." Jim's Betty, unseen in "Menagerie" becomes an opportunistic, home-obsessed wife who employs the N-word and resents the intimate relationship her unseen Uncle Clyde apparently shares with an African-American man named Rainbow. Jim clearly has understandable second thoughts about demure Laura by the end of the play. Eric McGowan is properly conflicted as Jim, and Katie Flanagan finds all of Betty's scheming and insensitivity.

The fifth play "Desire Quenched by Touch" by Marcus Gardley (based on the controversial 1948 Williams story "Desire and the Black Masseur") is both provocative and troubling. African-American masseur Fountain Le Grand-also known as Grand- boasts "I can do impossible things with my hands" and applies deep tissue massage to a mysterious mortician named Anthony Burns. While the story includes an interrogation about the seeming disappearance of Grand's client, there ae very disquieting moments that call to mind Williams' much subtler and more poetic if somewhat disturbing ''Suddenly Last Summer." Squeamish theatergoers should know that there is repeated full frontal nudity involving Burns and a conclusion that is certainly hard to watch. Even so, Singletary is commandingly conflicted as Grand, clearly drawn sexually to Burns at some moments and self-critical at others, and Sam Terry has a haunting lost soul quality as Burns.

"Desire" concludes with Rebecca Gilman's tonally uneven "The Field of Blue Children" (adapted from Williams' 1939 short of the same name). At certain moments, this young people-centered story contrasts thoughtful, bright Meaghan and less insightful if desired Layley. There is also the question as to which boyfriend will capture Layley's heart-poetic Dylan or imperious Grant. Some theatergoers may consider Layley ultimately un-admirable, though Dransfield is properly dynamic. An under-blanket simulation of intercourse may bother some audience members. Nevertheless, the ensemble evoking the students are all convincing. Sam Vallante has arresting moments as Dylan, especially as he speaks of trusting one's own voice.

Gore Vidal once spoke of Williams possessing a singularly compelling narrative tone of voice in his work. "Desire" evokes that tone in its best moments, and Miller and company make its Zeitgeist premiere a winner.


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