Desire: Exploring the Lesser Known Works of Tennessee Williams

Desire

Desire is an adaptation of six Tennessee Williams short stories by playwrights that include John Guare and Beth Henley, a sensitive production, excellently directed and controlled by Michael Wilson, that ranges widely over different periods of Williams’s career. Three stories are taken from the height of his artistic success, 1948-1950, two from his later period in the 1970s, and one from his apprenticeship in the late 1930s. Some things remain consistent in his writing, but it is clear in Desire just how much he also grew and experimented as he got older.

Henley adapted the first play, “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” an elegiac story from 1950 about childhood family closeness being torn apart by sexual awakening. This familiar mode gives way in the next play, “Tent Worms,” adapted by Elizabeth Egloff from a 1980 Williams story. Billy (Derek Smith) is a writer who is obsessed with killing the tent worms that are eating up the porch of his long-time holiday cottage, and this is clearly presented as a metaphor for Billy’s own mental disturbance, which is troublingly vague. His wife Clara (Liv Rooth) clearly loves Billy, but she drinks too much and it is revealed that she has longings of her own. Gone is the formal perfection of the first story from 1950, for in “Tent Worms” Williams is urging himself out into more discordant territory, still rooted in the symbolism he liked but less sure of itself and less sure of everything in general.

“You Lied To Me About Centralia,” which is John Guare’s adaptation of the 1948 Williams story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” seems like a dud at first. Betty (Megan Bartle) tells a long and rambling story about visiting a male relative while her fiancée Jim (Mickey Theis) listens, and poor Bartle does all she can with this story, but it’s a bitch of a thing to ask any performer to put over. It is only when Jim begins to speak that we realize that he is the Gentleman Caller from The Glass Menagerie and that this is a scene that is meant to take place after he leaves the Wingfield apartment. (As such, it might be a disappointment to those of us who have felt that maybe Jim doesn’t actually have a girlfriend but lies to Laura to get out of a sticky situation.) Jim is holding the unicorn horn that Laura gave him at the end of The Glass Menagerie, and it has cut his hand, and so he finally tosses it away. It is suggested that Jim has been touched by his encounter with Laura, but not too deeply. It feels here like Jim will forget about Laura and go on with his ordinary life with his very ordinary fiancée.

“Desire Quenched by Touch” is the most painful short play here, adapted by Marcus Gardley from Williams’s 1948 story “Desire and the Black Masseur.” Yaegel T. Welch plays Grand, a black man who wanted to be a cellist but got stuck being a masseur who finds an outlet for his frustration with Burns (John Skelley), a masochistic client. The desire to be touched and loved and the desire to hurt and be hurt blend here in a very disturbing way, and the actors present this with stark simplicity.

“Oriflamme,” a 1974 Williams short story adapted by David Grimm, is both the best-written piece here and the most problematic. On one level “Oriflamme” is like Williams doing a parody of himself and checking off all his boxes, with his usual motor-mouthed, neurasthenic heroine, Anna (Liv Rooth), pitted against a crude traveling salesman named Rodney (Derek Smith), whose nickname is Hooch. Anna calls him Mr. Hooch, and their encounter in a deserted area of a park brings out all of Williams’s old themes about blocked female sexual desire and masculine directness and misunderstanding. This story is A Streetcar Named Desire and Summer and Smoke distilled, and there are dazzling poetic passages within Anna’s feverish talking that are very touching but also somewhat absurd because their source is so over-familiar.

“The Field of Blue Children,” which was adapted by Rebecca Gilman from a 1939 Williams story, is the one play here that seeks to bring Williams into the 21st Century, and the result is very uneasy. Gilman’s profane added dialogue about texting and sex form a lurid container for two passages that are clearly from the early Williams story, two sweet and desperate monologues spoken by Layley (Megan Bartle), a girl who is torn between two prospective suitors. It makes sense that Gilman would want to try to bring Williams into the here and now just for some variety, but it doesn’t work at all, to put it mildly. What we all need, maybe, is a little rest from classic Williams and a deeper exploration of his later plays and one-acts, with less reverence for his talent and more insight into how his work might speak to us today.

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