Friday, February 22, 2008

opening-night review of *The Night of the Iguana*

Dark Night of the Soul
on Spokane Civic Theatre's Main Stage through March 8

What people do when they're trapped reveals character. In Tennessee Williams' *The Night of the Iguana,* the threats are loneliness, poverty, cynicism and spiritual emptiness -- and a seedy Mexican resort offers no apparent escape other than the pleasures of the flesh.
In a solid, sometimes uneven, production that nonetheless illuminates most of Williams' emotional high points, director Marianne McLaughlin has created a dark night of self-examination for three lonely souls -- earthy widow, generous artist, self-castigating minister -- in the unlikely environs of the Costa Verde Hotel (and at Spokane Civic Theatre through March 8).

Ric Benson has the exasperation and wheedling of Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon down without catching the self-disgust. With suspenders dangling and a plaintive tone, Benson projects the sleaze of the used car salesman or televangelist, but not the corrupted fleshiness of the man who's sought out young girls and booze as a means of escape. His cries of anguish and "Great Caesar's ghost!" were unconvincing; later, angrier outbursts (flinging his clerical collar into the bushes, a re-enactment of the contempt he felt in the pulpit for his well-fed parishioners driving around in their "shiny black cockroach sedans") were more convincing.
Since we discover that Shannon, from an early age has associated sexual pleasure with punishment, it's not surprising that he's tormented, histrionic, torn between the promptings of the flesh and the spirit. But with biceps tensed beside his clerical collar and false black shirtfront -- and with his face frequently turned, full of questions, up into the light -- Benson sometimes embodies the spiritual/sexual divide in Shannon's soul. Of course, it doesn't help that in Williams's overwritten second act, Benson is saddled with speeches spelling out what the iguana symbolizes.

In a promising Civic debut, Manu Peters presents a Hannah Jelkes who's less ethereal, less spinsterish than the norm. There's a kind of moral earnestness and idealism that emanates from her dignified line delivery that anchors this production's stance against despair. It's the evening's best characterization. Often Peters is helped by McLaughlin's direction (a parallel appearance with Shannon -- Hannah in her artist's frock, the reverend re-frocking himself, both of them girding themselves against their fears).
There's pain in her face as she listens to her grandfather recite poetry or to Shannon's complaints against God. Hannah spends much time caring for others; without being fussy about it, Peters uses the stage business to make her character seem filled with empathy. Breathing deeply to calm herself, clutching a beautiful but flimsy robe around her, Peters stands up to Benson's seductions of mind and body, charting her own course in a world that doesn't much care for sketch artists or "a minor-league poet with a major-league spirit." Hannah needs to stand up among the epicures as a pillar of rectitude and self-reliance; Peters has the simple dignity to do just that.

Melody Deatherage is surprisingly sensual and earthy as Maxine the horny widow. She unbuttons her blouse, paws Shannon's chest and -- at first sight of others' misforutnes -- throws her head back with a cackle. Released from a loveless marriage, she's betting that cuddles and rum cocoas will help stave off the gulf in her soul. But she leaves Shannon's rejections -- push-backs and insults, like a warning that she can't afford to be a "sexual snob" anymore -- awkwardly underplayed.
Judi Pratt, meanwhile, has a nice comic turn full of throaty hauteur as the leader of the puritannical pack stuffed into Shannon's tour bus and none too happy about it.

Set designer Peter Hardie spreads cane chairs across the verandah of a flimsy hotel. Jungle sounds emanate from just past the walkway there, and rivulets of water drip from tin roof's grooves during the first-act-ending (and, since this is Williams) symbolic downpour.
The opening guitar-violin-crickets-harmonica sequence is only the first instance of crisp offstage sounds credited to Bryan D. Durbin and Steve Fisher along with Becky Moonitz as music consultant.
Costumers Susan Berger and Jan Wanless do their usual capable job -- with the ornate flimsiness of Hannah Jelkes' last-act Asian robe a real highlight -- though in the early going, there are rather too many men running around in off-white suits.

Chris Carbis' elderly poet chimes in like a chorus, emphasizing how we should strive against the "betrayal of despair," about how so much of life involves "bargaining with mold and mist." Most of us strain to find ways of evading despair and instilling life with significance before the long decline toward death. In the final debate between Hannah and Shannon -- and in the final image of a character thrown back on slender resources -- McLaughlin's production of Williams' final masterpiece depicts our struggles against despair often enough to prompt thought long after the jungle sounds have faded away.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home