The words “Tennessee Williams” and “laughter” don’t turn up in the same sentence very often, so the idea of four of his plays inspiring a smile seems as likely as encountering a blue rhinoceros. Yet that’s what happens in “An Evening With Tennessee Williams.”
Had Davidson Community Players simply done these rare plays at all, they’d deserve our thanks. That they do Williams’ sensibilities justice is a bonus.
Three of them – “This Property is Condemned,” “The Pretty Trap” and “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” – are dry runs to be expanded into plays and films later. He wrote “Something Unspoken” in 1953, two years before “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and it shows him wrestling subtly with the same topic of forbidden sexuality.
Here’s how the show goes:
“Property” shows young Willie (impressive newcomer Isabella Frommelt) half flirtingly and half innocently revealing her feelings to equally young Tom (Austin Simmons) one afternoon. In the 1966 movie, the focus shifts to her charismatic older sister; here we see her growing up without proper role models but with joie de vivre; she’s old for her years and perhaps, like so many Williams heroines, already starting to fray mentally.
“The Pretty Trap” consists of a vivacious faded belle (Debra Allebach, exuding determined charm), her dreamily poetic son (Michael Gil), her socially inept daughter (Ana Rodriguez) and the gentleman caller (likeable Brandon Samples) who comes to dinner. When Laura set a crystal unicorn near Jim’s heedless feet, you could hear the audience suck in its breath collectively.
Yet this is more than a precursor to “The Glass Menagerie.” Williams makes mama Amanda more sympathetic than in the long play, and her kids seem more like a pair of albatrosses around her neck. (Laura’s less shy than obtuse.) The suggestion that Jim just may be the guy for this girl seems apt if uncharacteristically cheery for Williams.
“Wagons” would eventually be expanded into the bloated film “Baby Doll,” but it’s the right size as a one-act. Grizzled Jake (quietly sinister Phil Taylor) has married Flora, a young wife who’s half sensuous, half senseless. (“You’ll have to forgive me for not thinking,” she says. “I’m too lazy.”)
Viccarro (Alan Martin) brings 27 wagons of cotton over for Jake to gin, after a mysterious fire burns up his own gin. When he realizes Jake set the fire, he uses Flora as a means of vengeance. Della Knowles carries off the tough assignment of playing a woman who awakens to her own sexuality through behavior she dimly knows to be wrong.
“Unspoken” is also about sex, in a subdued way. Cornelia (Gloria King) has long exercised power in her local chapter of the Confederate Daughters of America, but she seems oddly unable to influence her personal assistant (Kelsey Perry), a sullen young widow she took in out of charity years ago.
The title refers to “the love that dare not speak its name,” which Cornelia has finally and fruitlessly decided to explore. She gets no help from the widow, who may or may not know what Cornelia wants of her, and Cornelia’s social and personal lives converge unhappily.
Clay James’ mobile and adaptable set can go from a section of railroad track to Amanda’s apartment with speed and reasonable fluidity.
That’s important, because the four one-acts share a theme with each other – and all of Williams’ work – that creates a continuous mood: They’re all about people who long to reveal or explore themselves but expect pain or rejection if they do. He explored that topic as well as any writer the American theater has produced.