THE TWO CHARACTER PLAYby Tennessee Williams
Director – Susan Sargeant
Set Design – Nick Brethauer
Costume Design – Barbara C. Cox
Lighting Design – David Allen Powers
Sound Design/Images/Photography – Lowell Sargeant
Stage Manager – Sara Means
Felice – Kevin Scott Keating
Clare – Lulu Ward
Reviewed Performance: 10/10/2014
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
When my wife and I lived in New Orleans, I once stood behind Tennessee Williams in a long line at a bank in the French Quarter. I couldn’t summon the courage to talk to him then, nor when I sometimes saw him walking in the Quarter, nor as I sat at a table next to him and his companion in a hamburger joint. A friend told me at that time that Williams had tried to pick up her brother at a bar in the Quarter. When the young man refused his advances, Williams asked, “Do you know who I am?” Perhaps more perceptively, the question should have been, “Do I know who I am?”
My brief sightings of Williams in New Orleans were during the mid to late ‘60’s, what he referred to as his “stoned age,” the time when he was out of favor with critics and when the American Theater was in a period of transition with experiments in the form of the theatrical experience rapidly taking place, and writers like Albee and Pinter leading the way. Williams, after the brilliance of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and others, was in the midst of a very bad time in his life, being committed for three months in 1969 by his brother for extreme substance abuse, and considered by most to be a literary wreck. It was during this ten year period that The Two Character Play began its tortured journey. Sometimes called Out Cry, The Two Character Play was written twenty five years after Streetcar, had its opening in Chicago in 1971, two years later on Broadway, where it ran only from March first through the tenth. The published version in 1976 is generally agreed to be the definitive one.
In The Two Character Play, brother and sister Felice and Clark are on a mostly deserted theater stage, having been abandoned by their troupe, and begin to act out a play called “The Two Character Play.” In doing so, the line between illusion and reality, a favorite theme of Williams, becomes blurred for both the characters and the audience. Are they acting out their own lives, trying to discover who they are by exploring their experiences in public, or are they and the characters they play living in a world of madness and illusion? Some critics even think the two characters are different personas of the same person. Throughout, he revisits themes he explores in his previous works. Clare comes in wearing what might be Blanche’s tiara from Streetcar. The Rose Tattoo is recalled by the rose pattern referred to in the rug, and several other direct and oblique allusions abound.
The play, as Director Susan Sargeant has said in answer to my inquiry, is deeply personal, as many of the Williams’ plays are, with Felice and Clare standing in for Williams and his sister Rose just as Tom and Laura do in The Glass Menagerie
It’s not an easy play, and Wingspan Theatre Company is to be strongly commended for giving the local theater scene a chance to experience this seldom produced work. Fortunately, with Ms. Sargeant, one of our strongest and most perceptive directors at the helm, the difficult script takes shape and form, and in a dream-like environment laced with the tatters of memories and delusions, we enter the sad, strange world of Felice and Clare. Only the best productions of Williams’ plays manage to capture his illusive combination of the ethereal, the struggle of the poet and the despair and desperation, along with the play’s language and humor. With strong guidance from Ms. Sargeant and the fine, fine work of its cast, this production does it all.
“…we had discussed the attitude of nature toward its creatures that are regarded as unnatural creatures…”
The sadness, the strangeness, the unique and the different are all there in Kevin Scott Keating’s role as Felice. Before he even says a word, his face, his body, and the very way he enters convey volumes. He begins to speak and move, and the placement and strength of his voice, the style of delivery, and his mannerisms and gestures tell us this character is an actor, perhaps one in the tradition of the old Actor/Managers of the past. Felice’s voice is loud and clear, often “actorish.” Mr. Keating conveys, through looks and the ease with which he interacts with Clare, the long history these characters share as siblings, performers and fellow sufferers. It’s a tight, well-executed turn in a difficult role and a difficult script. If sometimes one might wish for more variation in volume and voice, it doesn’t blunt the deep well of Felice’s life experiences Mr. Keating keeps revealing.
Lulu Ward plays the role of Clare like a piece of music. The character’s mercurial nature is reflected in the endless variation of Ms. Ward’s vocal quality, emotional display and physicalization. Constantly moving, stumbling with drink and drugs, terrifying n her delivery from moment to moment, it is a performance to be relished from start to finish. She finds the wildly swinging moods and reactions of Clare and pushes them without ever falling into caricature or easy actor technique. Her long monologue on the telephone should be filmed and shown in every acting class in town. It transitions from polite and “social” to horrifyingly pitiful and desperate without one false note. Over and over, Ms. Ward switches from emotion to emotion, reaction to reaction, building and revealing with every speech new insight into the character of Clare and her relationship with her brother.
“…poor Felice. He lost his argument about the impossible being necessary tonight. The impossible and the necessary pass each other without recognition on streets…”
Together, these actors reveal for us the lives of two strange, beautiful, damaged individuals. They know each beat of the script and move from one to the other clearly and with a purpose that keeps the audience right with them. They also find the humor, some dark, some raucous, as well as the ironies. Most importantly, they handle Williams’ poetry with skill and ease. He doesn’t often write what we think of as every day speech, and it takes agility and ability to make his dialogue sound natural, poetic and “lifted” at the same time. These performers do that. Ms. Ward and Mr. Keating are so comfortable with each other on stage and play off each other so well that you never doubt for a moment their character’s relationship. Their first exchange of glances when Clare enters tells us all. The fear of confinement and yet the fear of what awaits out in the world are familiar themes in Williams’ work and the actors manage to show us both sides of the dichotomy. When they speak in images or describe events, they visualize those so clearly in their own minds that we see them too, a gift our better actors all share.
Director Sargeant has produced several of Williams plays during the seasons of her Wingspan Theatre Company, directing some and appearing in others. When asked in an email what appeals to her about Tennessee Williams, she answered, “The language of course and also how (he) is able to capture the light and dark/duality of the human condition.” That she loves the language shows in the skillful way she has guided her actors to use it. The pacing, the use of the space, the clarity of the storytelling, the beautiful pictures she creates, all these things exhibit her remarkable talent.
The set by Nick Brethauer is simple and yet effective. An almost empty stage with a chaise, a trunk, a small table, and a few other pieces define the space. Upstage are the frames of a door and a window. Overhead is a large square frame held in place by a web of twine, the floor reflecting the same square below, smeared with swirls that suggest a carpet. Lighting by David Allen Powers is as dreamlike and mercurial as the stuff the play is made of, shifting in color and intensity to reflect the present and the play within the play, the moods of the characters, and building with the text to support its subtleties.
Sound design is by Lowell Sargeant, as are the images and the photography projected on the back cyc including those of sunflowers, the signs of the zodiac and a bloody statue. The sound of a guitar is called for in the script, turned off and on by Felice on an onstage tape recorder and also used elsewhere to telling effect. Echoes of the actors’ voices in one scene are so carefully and effectively done that they too become part of the texture of the evening.
As with the set, costumes by Barbara C. Cox are also simple but telling in character delineation, with a fur-collared coat, a long, rather tatty scarf and a shirt with astrological signs for Felice. Clare is costumed in a shapeless dress with pockets, a cape, maroon leggings and work boots. Strange, but somehow right.
The Two Character Play was important to Williams, who wrote and rewrote it as “an illusion within an illusion, an ‘out cry’ from isolation, panic, and fear”. Although his feeling of confinement includes that of his earlier work, he can’t seem to stop referencing them in this and other later works..
CLARE: So it’s a prison, this last theatre of ours? FELICE: It would seem to be one. CLARE: I’ve always suspected that theatres are prisons for players… FELICE: Finally, yes. And for writers of plays…
Thanks to Wingspan Theatre Company, this seldom seen work is out on parole and being given a gentle, thoughtful and lovingly wrought production that demands to be seen by anyone who loves the work of Williams or, indeed, cares about thoughtful theater.
Wingspan Theatre Company
at Bath House Cultural Center (on White Rock Lake)
521 E. Lawther Drive
Dallas, TX 75218
Runs through October 25th
Thursday - Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm, and Saturday at 2:00 pm
Post Show Talk Backs on Friday, October 17th and Friday, October 24th.
Tickets are $20.00 Thursday and Saturday matinee, and $22.00 on Friday and Saturday. Pay What You Can on Thursday, October 16th and Thursday, October 23rd.
Discounts available for seniors, students, KERA members, STAGE members and confirmed groups of ten or more. Student rush tickets available one half hour before curtain.
For information or reservations by credit card, go to www.wingspantheatre.com. You may also reserve by calling 214-675-6573 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org