Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Pride, shame, love, hate

Tennessee Williams' fiery transcendence

ELECTRIFYING. Seana McKenna performs in Orpheus Descending.

It was slightly disconcerting to be in Stratford watching two plays by Tennessee Williams during the early part of Toronto’s Pride Week. Williams was still alive when the first few versions of what used to be called Gay Pride Parades were held here. This made me wonder what he would have thought of the current mass celebration of a previously outrageous minority’s total surrender to the conformist demands of the social and political majority. He would surely have grieved over the sad fact that these once exciting outsiders are now eagerly docile members of mass society, applauding the chief of police and investing their hopes and dreams in their newly legalized spouses.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Orpheus Descending both come under Stratford’s seasonal banner of plays about “saints and sinners.” In Williams’ plays, of course, the characters who “sin” are unconventional, sexual outcasts who are despised and punished by the “normal” crowd. His heroes and heroines are unable or unwilling to make the necessary compromises that will allow them to disappear into a nice middle-class life. Their attempts to live their own way are doomed by the power of the hypocritically moral majority.

These two plays seen together in repertory make for a very interesting pairing. It becomes obvious why one is continually performed while the other has less popular appeal. In the most popular of Williams’ plays there is always one act or extended scene which is absolutely transcendent and takes its audience to an almost unbearably affecting place. Blanche and Mitch’s breakup in A Streetcar Named Desire and the Gentleman Caller scene in Glass Menagerie come instantly to mind.

While Cat On A Hot Tin Roof contains the second act confrontation between Brick and Big Daddy, Orpheus Descending does not have an extended long scene with such strength and power. A couple of the encounters between Lady Torrance and Valentine Xavier approach the height but never quite reach it and Williams does not quite get his audience to a point where it is battered beyond its emotional breaking point.

Orpheus is his reworking of a beloved first play and, like a lot of first works, it represents a whole young life’s worth of insights that demanded exposure. Even as an experienced master dramatist when he rewrote it in mid-career, Williams could not be ruthless enough with some of his beloved early characters. As a result he allows them to pull the audience’s attention from what should be its dramatic centre, the affair between Lady and Val.

While the playwright is not single-minded enough about Lady, such criticism can’t be extended to Seana McKenna who contributes an electrifying performance. In her hands, Lady Torrance is shown to be one of the greatest of Williams’ creations, a character who personifies the conflicts of need and desire, love and hate, memory and hope. Jonathan Goad, working as hard as he can, just about manages to keep up with McKenna and their scenes together exhibit a tension and bravura excitement that rushes the drama along to its shocking conclusion.

Director Miles Potter gets particularly good support work from the rest of the large cast and makes the best use possible of the apron stage at the Tom Patterson Theatre. As some slightly defensive program notes infer, this theatre is not ideal for staging Williams. Designer Peter Hartwell has done the best that he can, locating the action in time and place via precise costume verisimilitude.

Meanwhile Cat On A Hot Tin Roof gains immensely from being produced under a traditional proscenium arch stage at the Avon Theatre. Set designer Lorenzo Savoini and costume designer Dana Osborne are afforded the luxury of working in precisely the kind of venue that Williams wrote for and to which his precise staging instructions apply. As a consequence, they are able to transport the audience lock, stock and barrel to the hot, steamy world of the Mississippi Delta.

Director Richard Monette’s cast is first rate. However, despite all these advantages the first act does not come off quite as well as one could hope. While David Snelgrove as Brick looks dangerously handsome in the way Williams describes and proves to be a solid reactive partner, Cynthia Dale’s performance as Maggie is not quite there. She seems to be having trouble with her accent while the burden of coping with all those by-now clichéd lines seems to bear down on her. This Maggie The Cat is not really alive.

In contrast, the second act’s great scene between Brick and Big Daddy is an absolute scorcher. This wonderful scene, operatic in its intensity, strips this dramatic family bare and exposes the lies and evasions that lie near the heart of all relationships. In a heroic performance that equals McKenna in Orpheus, James Blendick as Big Daddy is monumental, dragging Snelgrove up with him as he scales the Williamsian heights.

In smaller roles, Lally Cadeau is an affecting Big Mama and Thom Marriott and Brigit Wilson provide sterling support as the rapacious and angry pairing of Gooper and Sister Woman.

This summer at Stratford is further confirmation of the enduring power of Tennessee Williams’ poetry and dramatic intensity. Festival-goers should try to catch at least one if not both of these splendid productions.