‘The Night of the Iguana’ brings us rare Williams

“The Night of the Iguana” represents the dividing line between the early hits that made Tennessee Williams beloved – mainly “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – and the later flops written on his descent into obscurity.

After “Iguana” ran for nine months in 1961-62, no new play of his held the Broadway stage longer than 15 weeks. “Iguana” has the strengths of his masterpieces – tenderness, dark humor, an unashamed streak of poetry – while revealing the weaknesses of the plays that would follow: It’s diffuse, occasionally repetitive, not wholly credible. Like almost all his plays, it’s about the devastating fear of loneliness and the lengths to which it drives us.

It has driven disgraced priest Larry Shannon into the Mexican jungle to lead tours of church ladies and seduce willing, underage girls. That crew lands at Maxine Faulk’s dumpy hotel, where Shannon has slept off previous bouts of drunkenness and depression. There he meets resilient, gentle Hannah Jelkes; she travels with her frail grandfather, Nonno, and sells his poems and her paintings.

Megan Sky directs a Citizens of the Universe production that brings out elements I didn’t remember so strongly from the 1976 Broadway revival, especially the jokes and Shannon’s angry self-disgust. (Brian Willard’s at his best there and stresses something easily forgotten: Shannon has a fever throughout the action.)

Yet Sky doesn’t fully expose the play’s wistful sadness. Stephanie DiPaolo’s well-grounded Hannah seems a survivor from the start, not someone whose outer softness slowly gives way and reveals inner strength. Her heartbreaking monologue about a strange romantic encounter, which encapsulates all Williams wants to say about loneliness, is more analytical than empathetic.

The major characters reflect Williams more clearly than in any other play: the anguished atheism of Shannon, the naughty humor of Maxine (Nancy Gaines), the rebuffed kindness of Hannah and the fragility of Nonno, the aged poet who struggles to keep making verses and shouts them at an ever less appreciative audience. (Don McManus plays Nonno as a senile attention-seeker.)

The results are poignant, even when the writing doesn’t succeed. Maxine’s captive iguana becomes a clunky symbol for Shannon himself, once she tries metaphorically to tie him down. The mind-body-spirit triangle of Shannon-Maxine-Hannah gets underlined a bit heavily. Boorish German tourists remain ugly, useless caricatures.

Yet Williams’ command of language never deserts him. He’s not afraid to be sentimental, and he makes that style work for him. As the exhausted Nonno creates a lovely final poem only we may ever hear, we remember that Williams’ writing retained some of its beauty and power long after people stopped listening.