Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale by Tennessee Williams

For the second spring in a row, I have had a chance to see a local production of a Tennessee Williams play. It’s kind of funny how things tend to go in cycles. If you want to read my thoughts on The Glass Menagerie at The Empty Space, here you go. My wife and I saw this play at California State University Bakersfield, our local four year college. (CSUB recently ranked in the top three colleges nationwide for income mobility. If you want to go from income in the bottom fifth to a higher level, this is the place for you. I know a number of instructors at CSUB, and they are devoted and excellent.)

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale is the revised version of an earlier play, Summer and Smoke, which itself was originally titled Chart of Anatomy. The revised version follows roughly (but not exactly) the same plot, but with key changes to dialogue which put a different spin on the characters. I mention the different names, because I think they shed some light on the different themes found in the play, and the change in how Williams viewed them over the 15 year period between the two versions. Both versions are from Williams’ later period, with the final version of Eccentricities premiered in 1964. This is one of Williams’ lesser known plays, a fact which the director of this production, Maria-Tania Becerra, felt would free the actors from having to imitate or distinguish themselves from famous portrayals of the characters.

The plot is roughly as follows: Alma is an emotional and high strung minister’s daughter in the years before World War One. Her mother is mentally ill, and out of touch with reality. Her father believes this illness is the mother’s choice, although he acknowledges that it got worse after the tragic death of her sister. Alma is in love with John Buchanan Jr., a young doctor who is the “boy next door” all grown up. The play takes place during the course of a year beginning and ending with a 4th of July celebration in the town square.

John has an ill father, and an overbearing, overprotective mother, who insists that he marry exactly the right sort of woman, perfect in every way. Williams can write the overbearing mother like nobody else - presumably because of his own difficult relationship with his mother. The scene where Mrs. Buchanan tells - in excruciating detail - of the woman she envisions him to marry is thoroughly horrifying and so well written. John is also interested in Alma, but he knows his life will be hell if he marries her. 

 Taylor Clark (Alma) and Garrett Willis (John)
Publicity photo.

The two of them have a few moments in the first episode, when he comes to visit, but he must leave before they really connect. He returns over the Christmas holiday, and the not-quite romance takes place in this setting. There is awkward scene after awkward scene, first in her house, when he and his mother come visiting, and her mother interrupts and buttonholes John to tell him the sordid story of her sister and the mechanical inventor she eloped with. (We are given this story in bits and pieces throughout the play - and at key emotional moments.) Alma invites John to a meeting of a literary society (of which John’s mother disapproves), and things go poorly enough even before Alma’s mother makes another inopportune appearance, and John’s mother drags him home.

Later, the overwrought Alma appears at the Buchanan’s door in the wee hours of the morning, to see John’s father, who is also a doctor, about heart palpitations. As John is on strict instructions to let his father sleep, he sees Alma instead, and the romance, such as it is, takes place. John insists (against his mother’s wishes) on taking Alma to a movie on New Years Eve. After the movie is another awkward scene in the square, as Alma cannot relax, and John cannot really figure her out.

However, Alma, who at this point, has been the aggressor in the relationship, takes charge. She realizes that John can’t really love her in the way she wants, but she wants one night to remember with him. However, in the room rented for an hour, they can’t really kindle a spark (figuratively, and literally in the sense of lighting the fireplace.) The romance has fizzled, alas.

After the play, my wife and I made a bit of a date night of it, and spent the next hour or two discussing the themes. Williams is always intentional with his symbolism, and nothing happens in the play that doesn’t mean something. (Kind of like Chekhov and his guns - if you see one, it will be used…)

I found the original titles to be interesting in this regard. The revised version downplays the “anatomy” idea compared to the original, where an anatomy chart functions to make a contrast between the intellectual John and the spiritual Alma. In the later play, Alma is more emotional, and John less coldly rational - both are more human and less stock. In the final title of the original, smoke is important. Indeed, in the Eccentricities version, smoke plays a key metaphorical role. While I am no fan of tobacco, I was willing to endure the smoking in this case because it has a clear role in the play. Smoke obscures the intentions of the parties. John uses his cigarettes to avoid uncomfortable emotions. But his continual kindling of the flame also may represent his attempts to kindle a romance. Alma, on the other hand, runs hot. She is overheated even in the winter, when everyone else complains of cold. At least until the scene in the rented room, when even she cannot seem to kindle her own warmth - her passion has flamed out somehow.

The other major theme in this case is one Williams returns to often. Alma’s biggest problem is that she cannot and will not conform to expectations. She isn’t the same as other girls (and certainly not like the perfect girl Mrs. Buchanan imagines for her son), and she cannot make herself into the perfect southern girl her father wishes her to be.

Williams once said that he was Alma, and it isn’t hard to believe it. Just a bit too loud. A bit too enthusiastic, putting too much emotion and heart into things. Feeling too deeply. Not caring enough what others thought or expected.

This is where the parallel story of Alma’s aunt and the inventor is interesting. He made mechanical people who did the same thing, over and over again. (Of particular interest is the “Bird Girl,” who is kind of like Alma is expected to be - a singer who does things the same way and perfectly.) But the perfection of the mechanical menagerie is ruined when the inventor adds a live snake to the collection. This living thing does not behave mechanically. It gets cold when it is cold, and the attempts to warm it end up smothering it, and everything unravels from there. And so with Alma. She needs heat, and she has heat within her. But that heat is a threat, and she is pressured to act more mechanically. And she too is smothered - until she breaks away at the end.

As with so many of Williams’ plays, the battle between conformity and fidelity to one’s self and nature in the artistic temperament is the central theme. Particularly in the present time, this is apropos. There have always been conservative elements that have feared and hated the arts and sought to control them. (You can go as far back as the Old Testament prophets for this too - their writings are beautiful and artistic, and they were hated and hounded for speaking truth to power.) The arts are unpredictable, and far from tame. Artists tend to be divergent thinkers. They inspire us, and challenge us, and keep us from feeling comfortable. The Soviets found this out in their attempts to coerce Shostakovich and Prokofiev into writing properly patriotic works - only to find that history got the last laugh. (Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony contained a veiled reference to Soviet coercion at the end - which completely went over the heads of the censors. Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije was ostensibly a satire of Tsarist government, but is even funnier as a parody of Soviet bureaucracy…)

CSUB’s productions generally are well done, and this play was as well. Taylor Clark as Alma captured the nervous energy of the part quite well - it was easy to believe that she was Alma in real life as well. Garrett Willis had an even more difficult task as John, because he had to be the cold to Alma’s hot, which meant underacting the part. Willis did a decent job, and had chemistry with Clark, but I felt he wasn’t as convincing in the sense of having a passion for her. I am not sure if this was intentional or not. It could well be that his ambivalence about her was intended to be more on the side of lack of interest, and in that case, he was more convincing. I mean this to be a very small criticism on what was otherwise a solid performance. I will also note that he played off of the controlling mother quite well, with a languid aspect and a strategy of non-engagement with her attempts at control.

I will single out Phoebe Pyne, who portrayed Mrs. Buchanan, as outstanding. Whenever she was on stage, she owned it - just like the character should. Mrs. Buchanan is the 800 pound gorilla, who does as she pleases, and nobody can stand up to her. Her arrogance and selfishness and disregard for anything other than her own interests is key to this play. (And also an interesting contrast to Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, who lacks the social power of Mrs. Buchanan, and therefore relies on manipulation rather than bullying. Likewise, John lacks the self-confidence, and more importantly, shuns conflict, in contrast to Tom, who stands up to his mother with devastating results.

In preparation for this production, the actors made a study of dialect. Faculty member Mendy McMasters took a trip Tennessee Williams’ hometown, Clarksdale Mississippi, and made a collection of vocal samples to aid in the study. For a bunch of Californians (and you know we don’t have accents - we talk like normal people…) to switch to dialect was a challenge, and exactly the sort that college students should have to do as part of their training. I am not well qualified to judge how good the dialect was, having never lived in the South, but it wasn’t bad. Generally, I would say that the main characters sounded more comfortable at it than the bit characters, which is probably to be expected. In any case, I think the decision to go with dialect over straight speech was a solid one.

One final thing to mention: this play was done in the very small Arena Theatre (which is as much a backstage space as anything). The sets were minimalist, but intriguing. All of the furniture was designed and made using a new CAD and computer cutting system at the college. This made for some fairly intricate and elegant designs made simply yet strongly. I found it interesting, at least. Your mileage may vary.

An interesting play, a good production, and a dear friend to discuss it with afterward. What could be better?

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