|Brad Dourif and Amanda Plummer: Brilliant in 'The Two-Character Play'|
I owe Tennessee Williams an apology—though, in my defense, it has taken a near miracle to get me to understand this.
Indeed, something nearly miraculous is occurring at the New World Stages, with the revival of Williams's seldom-seen The Two-Character Play: the opportunity to discover that the old boy still has the power to amaze and thrill audiences.
Prior to last night—having seen the play 40 years ago in its earlier incarnation as Out Cry—I had placed it near the top of a shortlist of Disasters-I-Have-Endured as a lifelong theatergoer.
Not any more.
Thanks to brilliant directing by Gene David Kirk and exquisite performances by Brad Dourif and Amanda Plummer, this production is a true revelation.
Williams, who famously never stopped tinkering with his writing, spent ten years working on The Two-Character Play, which he called his best play since Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and the “most beautiful” since A Streetcar Named Desire. Based on the current production, I would tend to agree.
The Two-Character Play is nothing like his more famous and far-more-popular earlier works. It takes us deeply into the realm of Pirandello (metatheater), and Beckett (absurdism), and Ionesco (absurdism with an emotional fillip). The transition is complete and can stand proudly alongside the best of those more famous purveyors of the form. Williams totally gets it.
I felt this way last year when I saw the engaging production of In Masks Outrageous and Austere at the Culture Project. But that play, said to be Williams’s last completed work, does carry with it an asterisk of sorts, as many hands set about shaping it after his death. I was particularly taken with the sly humor that pervaded that production, a contrast with the popular image of Williams in his later years as a depressed alcoholic has-been.
However, The Two-Character Play is all Williams, and is subject only to rediscovery. The heightened language (at times Shakespearean), and the often-quite-funny gallows humor are all his.
This is a tale of the downward spiral of a brother and sister (Felice and Clare), a pair of middle-aged actors, whose lives were damaged beyond repair when their father shot their mother and then himself, “unkindly forgetting his children,” as Clare puts it in a line ripe with double-edged meaning. The pair are bound to one another, both understanding they are doomed to the inevitable act of finishing their father’s task, yet wanting to postpone their fate as long as they possibly can.
The title references the play-within-a-play, a version of their lives they perform for themselves and for us, their audience. It is a theme with many variations and improvisations, and carries with it colorations of agoraphobia, fear, anxiety, escapist fantasy, paranoia, loss, and dementia: a Pandora’s box with dark humor and imagined hope in place of the real thing.
Watching Mr. Dourif and Ms. Plummer bring these characters to three-dimensional life is to study theatrical masters at the top of their game. It seems that Ms. Plummer, in particular, has figured out every breath, every gesture, every quality of speech she needs in order to fully occupy the character of Clare—so much so, that by play’s end, I wondered whether Felice was actually still alive or was only being kept alive in Clare’s determined if troubled mind.
Much speculation has been offered up regarding the extent to which Williams was representing aspects of his life and that of his mentally ill sister, Rose. But I prefer to credit him as an artist who wrote with great intentionality and with an eye to having his work produced for a paying audience. This above all kept him going despite his battles with personal demons.
In the play, Clare mentions a doctor who “once told me that you and I were the bravest people he know.
“I said, ‘Why, that’s absurd. My brother and I are terrified of our shadows.’
“And he said, ‘Yes, I know that, and that’s why I admire your courage so much.’”
This is how I think of Tennessee Williams, a brave artist who remained always faithful to his calling, continuing throughout his life to learn, explore, and grow as a writer, whatever temptations there may have been to stick to the tried-and-true.
I apologize for ever doubting.
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