Five by Tenn , Tom Crean — Antarctic Explorer
Exploration is the fodder of Five by Tenn and Tom Crean — Antarctic Explorer. “Dragon Country, the country of pain” is Tennessee Williams’s Terra Nova, and it’s afforded a tender and ghostly trek in Five by Tenn (presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion through February 25). The concept isn’t new: in 2003, Hartford Stage offered 8 by Tenn, a two-part program of Williams one-acts that found the lyrical poet/playwright walking in the shoes of Ionesco and Beckett. In 2004, Michael Kahn directed a Five by Tenn at Washington’s Kennedy Center that included works newly unearthed by scholars Nick Moschovakis and David Roessel while doing research for the 2002 edition of Williams’s Collected Poems. For SpeakEasy, director Scott Edmiston uses three of those plays, substitutes two others, and adds a scene from the 1977 Vieux Carré to trace an arc of Williams’s development as both artist and sexual being that devolves into his wandering mostly forsaken in the desert of his later career. In one work, the cryptic I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow (radically reconceived by Edmiston), the poet’s frightened youthful and older selves come together. As George Orwell might say, some of these works are more equal than others, but the way in which Edmiston threads them together is exquisite. And given the quality of the cast, somewhat ought to commandeer his Rolodex.
Williams asserted that his single theme was “the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, non-conformist individual.” Here we have sketches that take weightier shape as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, with their wounded and delicate birds of pretense, commingled with more caustic experimental works that bespeak the despair of the diminished if still idealistic writer haunted by the passage of time. But whereas Kahn’s production glued its one-acts together by means of a Williams impersonator, SpeakEasy offers the soulful Eric Rubbe as the young writer, clinging to his innocence even as he surrenders it in These Are the Stairs You Got To Watch and Vieux Carré, and the sublime William Young as a forgotten poet renouncing rediscovery in Mister Paradise. In the evening’s most moving work (and the only one besides Vieux Carré to have been seen before), the Pinteresque I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, the two stand-ins come together in a piece conceived by Williams for a middle-aged man and woman but here re-envisioned for interdependent, lonely men — fearful May and urgent December — and enacted with fragmented desperation by Rubbe and magisterial crankiness, then an æthereal dying light, by Young.
The evening begins with an expertly antic staging of the 1940s These Are the Stairs You Got To Watch, which is set in a cinematic den of iniquity beckoning an under-age usher. That’s followed by a Glass Menagerie warm-up and Chekhov homage, the 1937 Summer at the Lake, in which the Williams stand-in does not skedaddle into long distance but swims into the blue yonder — though not before remarking of the fire escapes of Williams’s blighted St. Louis youth: “Don’t they think people have things to escape besides fire?” The play’s Amanda figure is well acted by Trinity Rep stalwart Anne Scurria, with a mix of faux gentility and true grit, and Mary Klug tops her addled-factotum turn in Stairs with a subversively subservient one as an elderly, put-upon maid.
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