Wednesday, August 06, 2014

"A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur" isn't Williams at his best

From the mid-nineteen forties until the mid-nineteen fifties, Tennessee Williams was at his theatrical peak.  His plays, many carrying traces of biographical information and characters, were highlighted by his portrayal of women.  Women caught in the headlights of living in a society which they didn’t understand and which didn’t understand them.  High strung Southern women, often showing signs of mental illness, demonstrating delusional tendencies.  Blanche in “Streetcar Named Desire,” Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie,” and Maggie, in “Cat on the Hot Tin Roof,” all were well-defined William’s protagonists.

Though his writing style and subject matter had changed, by the seventies, near the end of his writing career, ironically, the lead female character in “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” seems like a kissing cousin to Blanche, Amanda and Maggie.  

“A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” premiered at the Spoleto Arts Festival in 1978 to praise.  The production, which starred Shirley Knight and Jane Alexander, was called, “tender, poignant and measurably human,” though it was noted that the play was “a work in progress.”

The final version of the play is now on stage at The Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre.

Set in 1935 St. Louis, with many references to Williams’ life, including one to the shoe company which is the same as that referred to in “Glass Menagerie,” and where Tennessee worked.  The plot centers on Dorothea, a school teacher, who shares an apartment with her elderly friend, the slovenly, hard of hearing, Bodey.  Upstairs lives a frazzled German-speaking neighbor, who is mentally ill and is afraid to be left alone.

Dottie, as she is called by Bodey, lacks a clear sense of self.  She fantasizes about her “relationship” with Mr. Ellis, her school’s principal, who seduced her in the back seat of his car.  He could be her way out of her present life.

Bodey wants her to date and get married to her twin brother, Buddy.  In order to further their relationship, Bodey has arranged for the trio to go on a picnic to Creve Coeur Park.  Dottie delays going as she anxiously waits for a call from Mr. Ellis.

A haughty fellow teacher, Helena, with motives all her own, wants Dorthea to move out of the “squalor” of her present apartment and move into an upper-end apartment with her.  As part of her manipulation, Helena has brought along a copy of a newspaper, which reveals that Mr. Ellis has recently announced his engagement to another woman.  Dottie is crestfallen.

Will she move in with Helena?  Will she go on the picnic with Bodey and Buddy?
Will she realize that she can be a whole person without having a man in her life?

The play, though it is not the quality of Williams’ earlier works, does have some substance and provokes looks at such topics as female dependence on having a male to complete them, the definition of “friendship,” ethnic stereotypes, and how does one go on after suffering a life-altering experience?

Blair Williams, director of the Shaw production, has developed a watchable, if not encompassing production.   Is the problem Williams staging or the script itself?

Cameron Porteous has designed a claustrophobic set that perfectly fits the mood and uncomfortable living area required.

The cast is quite good.  Deborah Hay moves well through her roll as Dorothea, but to develop a “full blown” Williams woman, she could have been more fragile and desperate.  She seemed to take her rejection and walk toward a wrong solution to her life problems with too much pluck.

Kate Hennig is right on character as the well-meaning, earth mother, Bodey.

Kaylee Harwood portrays the manipulating and overbearing Helena, with just the right level of aloofness.

Julain Molnar is a little over the top as the psychotic Miss Gluck, but the lines Williams gives her allow for little else.

Capsule judgement: “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” is not one of Tennessee Williams best plays.  The script just doesn’t have the depth of his major works, and imitates much of the concepts better written about in “Streetcar Named Desire.”  The Shaw production gives the script a credible, but not compelling staging.