Adjusting to a Period of lighter Tennessee Williams

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MacKenzie Meehan (left) is newlywed Isabel Haverstick and Johnny Moreno is her husband’s friend Ralph Bates in Tennessee Williams’ 1960 “serious comedy” A Period of Adjustment now at SF Playhouse. Below: Moreno’s Ralph reunites with Korean War buddy George Haverstick. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

As a fading Southern belle in a Tennessee Williams play might say, “Well I do declare! What’s a theatergoer to do with so many scrumptious Williams play from which to choose?”

The answer is: see all of them. As we come to the end of Williams’ centenary year, it seems only appropriate to be reveling in the writer’s work. Marin Theatre Company recently opened a lovely production of The Glass Menagerie (read my review here), and in January, Theatre Rhinoceros presents The Two-Character Play, which Williams claimed was his “most beautiful play since Streetcar.”

There’s no mistaking Williams’ A Period of Adjustment, now at SF Playhouse, for one of his most beautiful plays. Nor is it even one of his most interesting. But it is fascinating for a number of reasons. Written in 1960, between Sweet Bird of Youth and The Night of the Iguana, Adjustment is Williams working in sitcom mode as if to prove that he’s capable of something lighter.

He called the play a “serious comedy” and that comes pretty close to describing it, though it’s not all that funny. In fact, a lighter Williams ends up feeling strangely like Edward Albee if he were to try writing a 1950s sitcom.

The Albee comparison comes into play with the setting of the play: a Nashville suburb called High Point. It’s a well-appointed suburb, as so many suburbs were in 1958, but to ramp up the dramatic metaphor, this particular ‘burb is built on top of a cavern, which means that everything on it is sinking about a half an inch each year. Every once in a while, the entire theater shakes (some audience members around me went into full earthquake alert), and we feel the ongoing and eventual destruction of that annual half inch.

The sinking suburb is home to Ralph Bates (Johnny Moreno), a Korean War veteran who married the boss’ daughter, had a kid and finds himself in utter misery at the emptiness of his life. On this Christmas Eve, his wife (described as homely by Ralph but in actuality played by the beautiful Maggie Mason) has left, taking their son but leaving all the presents under the Christmas tree.

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It’s hardly a prime time for unannounced visitors, but on this snowy night, here they come. Newlyweds George Haverstick (Patrick Alparone) and Isabel Haverstick (MacKenzie Meehan) have driven in from St. Louis – in a funeral Cadillac no less – and need a place to stay. George and Ralph were in the Korean War together, so there’s little chance they’ll be turned away. Even on Christmas Eve.

Turns out the newlyweds aren’t getting along so well. Stuck in the car since the wedding, they’re climbing all over each other’s nerves and wondering what in the hell they’ve gotten themselves in for. Damaged by the war, George shakes uncontrollably. He received medical attention, and wouldn’t you know it? Isabel was his loving nurse.

Director Bill English is in firm control of the material and delivers a handsome production. Nina Ball’s set is a beautifully detailed ’50s home, and Tatjana Genser’s costumes are just as crisp and cool as they can be (cool as in coooool – not cold). The period evocation of this Period is just about perfect and adds a whole level of pleasure to the production.

The same is true of the performances, which all exhibit a level of intensity appropriate for the befuddled married couples but dialed down from the usual Williams sturm und drang. Meehan is especially good as Isabel, a bright, eager woman who is trying to hold it together even though she’s sinking more and more into sheer panic. These are not characters of great emotional depth – it’s a comedy, remember? – but they’re all damaged to some degree, all scarred by the past and petrified of the future, and these actors capture that.

This Period has been adjusted, you might say. This isn’t Williams’ full 1960 script but rather a version edited down by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn. I’ve never read the full text, but I have seen the 1962 movie starring Jane Fonda as Isabel, and this handsome/lovely cast is much better at striking a tone of marital ambivalence that leads to a somewhat happy ending.

A Period of Adjustment may not be classic Williams but it’s a Williams curiosity worth seeing in this impeccable production.

Tennessee Williams’ A Period of Adjustment continues through Jan. 14 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Marin reveals crystaline Glass Menagerie

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Craig Marker is the Gentleman Caller and Anna Bullard is Laura Wingfield in the Marin Theatre Company production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Below: Nicholas Pelczar is Tom Wingfield and Sherman Fracher is his mother, Amanda. Photos by Alessandra Mello

Tennessee Williams’ first brilliant move was to let everyone off the hook – himself included. By alerting the audience that The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, he removes it from reality (or not) and lets the creative team and the audience make their own accommodations as to what is memory, what is fact and what is flight of artistic fancy. In other words, you can try to get away with just about anything because it’s all a memory, right?

Marin Theatre Company’s production of Menagerie doesn’t stray too far from tradition, but director Jasson Minadakis definitely puts his own spin on the 1944 classic and gets some marvelous performances from his cast.

Minadakis’ boldest move is the inclusion of a trumpet player (Andrew Wilke) who hovers and plays above the play for the duration of its two-plus hours. The music, composed by Chris Houston, is gorgeous – aching and winsome – but to have the musician also represent the family’s absent father (the phone company worker who fell in love with long distances) is a bit of a stretch. It’s also tough to rationalize the occasional use of props (a glass unicorn, matches) mixed with pantomime (phones, food at the dinner table, dandelion wine, cigarettes) because the actors have extra work making sense of some real items and others imagined.

The fragmented aspect of memory finds physical form in the staircase/scaffolding/fire escape set by Kat Conley. If M.C. Escher designed St. Louis apartment buildings in the 1930s, this might be the result.

At the center of this angled tangle of construction is the Wingfield family: matriarch Laura (Sherman Fracher), son Tom (Nicholas Pelczar) and daughter Laura (Anna Bullard). Here is where the beauty and loving insanity of Williams’ memory play lies. This is also where Minadakis brings out some exquisite depth from most of his actors.

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Pelczar brings a very real sense of Williams himself to the role, which seems appropriate given that this production is partly in honor of Williams’ centennial this year. Tom, as a character, is something of a cypher, but Pelczar is at once warm and personable and tightly coiled. There’s a sense of personality bubbling just under the surface of this restless young man who is trying so hard to be a good son and brother but is destined to fail as he becomes his own man.

The showy role of Amanda, a faded Southern belle who lives as much in memory as she does in the economic and emotional privations of her present, can send even the greatest actresses into fluttery flights of dramatic fancy. But Fracher, in her Marin Theatre Company debut, puts on a wonderful (and fiercely funny) show but somehow remains intensely focused and very real. It’s a testament to how much we like and understand her that when she shows up in a ridiculous old gown (the bright yellow monstrosity is the deft creation of Jacqueline Firkins) we find it as sad as it is funny.

Bullard in the challenging role of Laura, whose limp and other physical ills have left her an emotional shell, is still searching for her character. Her accent, which flutters from the South to the outer burroughs of New York, is problematic, but it’s one of only several unfocused aspects of her performance. When Craig Marker shows up as Jim O’Connor, aka the Gentleman Caller, he brings exactly the kind of internal light to the stage that Williams suggest made the character such a star in high school.

Marker works wonders on Bullard’s Laura – suddenly the character begins connecting, not just with him but also with the audience – and it’s easy to see why. Marker is such a dynamic presence that he’s impossible to resist. Like Laura, Jim is somewhat damaged himself. He peaked in high school and has struggled to find his way as an adult. He still retains enough big-man-on-campus charisma left to make Laura feel special just for basking in his faded glow, and that makes both of them (temporarily) happy.

The long scene between Jim and Laura does exactly what it’s supposed to do in that it pulls the audience into an incredibly intimate exchange that happens mostly in the dark (Ben Wilhelm’s lights are practically poetry in their own right). It’s a scene full of hope and affection and second chances and discovery and, ultimately, heartbreak.

The Glass Menagerie is the kind of play that reveals more of itself each time you see it. This time around it was all about how the gentleman caller breezes in and absolutely changes the Wingfield family forever. We know, essentially, what happens to Tom, but this production made me want to linger in that sad apartment and watch what happens between mother and daughter.

[bonus video]
Watch the trailer for MTC’s The Glass Menagerie.

Trailer: THE GLASS MENAGERIE at MTC from Marin Theatre Company on Vimeo.

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie continues through Dec. 18 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$50. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Of pleasures and Eccentricities

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Love hurts: Beth Wilmurt is Alma Winemiller and Thomas Gorrebeeck is John Buchanan in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Below: Gorrebeeck’s John (far right) watches as Wilmurt’s Alma conducts a meeting with her fellow “misfits” (from left Leanne Borghesi, Beth Deitchman and Ryan Tasker). Photos by David Allen


Oh, Alma Winemiller. If you had been able to shuck off the burden of having an insane mother and a stern Episcopalian priest for a father, you might have become the woman you were meant to be: Lady Gaga.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but poor Alma is just a heap of talent and emotion and expression aching for release in Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale, a play with a convoluted history in the Tennessee Williams canon. The Aurora Theatre Company production of the play, directed with finesse and warmth by Artistic Director Tom Ross, makes a case for the play being if not alongside siblings like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, then at least in an honorable spot somewhere just below.

Eccentricities started out as a short story called “Yellow Bird,” which evolved into the play Summer and Smoke. That play’s Broadway premiere in 1948 failed to live up to expectations set by Streetcar, though a 1952 off-Broadway revival starring Geraldine Page salvaged the play’s reputation somewhat (Page reprised the role of Alma in the 1961 movie).

Soon after writing Summer and Smoke, Williams had already created an alternate version of it, which he called Eccentricities of a Nightingale. He offered that one to the Broadway producers of Summer and Smoke, but they stuck with original play. Williams is said to have liked Eccentricities better: “It is less conventional and melodramatic.” Even so, the alternate version didn’t have its Broadway premiere until 1976.

The Aurora, with its wonderfully intimate playing space, is a great way to experience Williams. Being able to see the slightest shift in an actor’s face, or to notice very specific physical movement, however small, makes it all very real and emotional. One of the chief pleasures of this Nightingale is experiencing – really experiencing – the beautiful performances by Ross’ cast.

It’s clear that Williams had a connection to and deep compassion for the character of Alma, a passionate, yearning woman forced by gender and convention into straitjacketed small-town life. She refuses, however, to surrender her individuality. That’s why she’s politely referred to as an eccentric. When she sings, she’s too emotionally connected. She’s too histrionic, too affected. But she’s unlike anyone else in town, and that’s a small triumph.

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Beth Wilmurt has a little bit of Geraldine Page in her Alma, and that can only be a good thing. Wilmurt is an immediately likable and accessible actor. We feel for Alma right away when we meet her at a Fourth of July picnic. She’s a spinster in the making (if not a spinster in the town’s eyes already), someone to feel sorry for but not think about too often. Alma knows all that but embraces her eccentricity anyway – even when it provokes the disapproval of her father (a stern Charles Dean).

Wilmurt has the tremendous advantage of being funny and heartbreaking at the same time. We can see in her Alma’s instability, which she may have inherited from her “disturbed” mother (Amy Crumpacker), who ambles about talking about her dead sister, Albertine, and the Musée Mécanique. We also see her father’s resilience and, underneath it all, the soul of an artist who wants to taste the world.

With Thomas Gorrebeeck as young Dr. John Buchanan, it’s easy to see why Alma has been in love with the boy next door since childhood. He broods without seeming like a self-indulgent narcissist, and though deemed a success in the world – summa cum laude from Johns Hopkins – he’s got parental damage as well. He’s a mama’s boy in the extreme. His doting mother – played with crisp, almost creepy authority by Marcia Pizzo – wouldn’t know an appropriate boundary if it was an electrified fence.

John still has a spark of individuality, though, and that spark lights up around Alma. Even though Mother Buchanan does everything she can to squash John’s interest in the wholly inappropriate girl next door, he pays her some much needed attention.

There’s an extraordinary scene – so well directed and performed you don’t want it to end – that involves a panic attack, a late-night visit to the doctor’s office and a powerful emotional flare-up. Wilmurt and Gorrebeeck bare the souls of their characters to such a degree that the play peaks in the scene. The following scene, in which Williams the love-as-fire metaphor into the ground, is anti-climactic (although Wilmurt continues to fascinate), and the epilogue is just sad, as it probably has to be. For a woman like Alma in the early part of the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of good choices.

Simply and beautifully designed by Liliana Duque Piñeiro (sets), Jim Cave (lights) and Laura Hazlett (costumes), this Nightingale casts an emotional spell and makes you grateful that Williams kept coming back to Alma.



Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale continues through continues through May 8 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$45. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

And the Party rages on!

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Sheila Balter and Ryan Tasker are taking Two on a Party on the road to France for the annual Word for Word Tour de France. Photo by Mark Leialoha.


I loved it before and I love it even more now.

About a year ago, Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros joined forces for an evening of three shorts stories by gay writers adapted for the stage (in true Word for Word fashion, not a letter of the original text is changed). That production was a tremendous example of the Word for Word art – taking what’s great on the page and making it even greater on the stage. (Read my original review.)

Continuing the Word for Word tradition of taking shows to the American Libraries in France, Two for the Road, the Tennessee Williams story from the Rhino collaboration, is heading across the seas. But before the tour began, Word for Word decided to leave us with a taste of the show’s brilliance. On Saturday and Sunday at the thrilling new Z Space at Theater Artaud performance venue, we once again got to experience Williams’ sterling prose as he followed the lives and (sort of) loves of Billy and Cora, a gay man and a straight woman trawling the Eastern Seaboard for men and booze.

Director John Fisher’s ingenious production is, if anything, even sharper than it was a year ago, and the characters seem more deeply felt and poignant. In many ways, this is a tale as debauched as any tale ever was with its constant stream of sailors and simulated sex and rough trade and martinis from a Thermos. But Williams is far too skilled a writer to let this story be lurid or sensational. Billy and Cora are dimensional human beings, and as such, their interconnected stories are tender and sweet – even full of kindness.

Most of the original cast returns, which is a great thing. Ryan Tasker is note perfect as Billy, the Williams-esque writer who doesn’t always make wise choices in men. Most of those men are played by Brendan Godfrey, who is convincing as a nellie hotel clerk or a brooding motorcycle man. New to the cast is Jeri Lynn Cohen, who trills “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and makes a convincing barfly and sailor.

Sheila Balter was in the original cast but in the ensemble role now filled by Cohen. Balter is now Cora (originally played by the marvelous JoAnne Winter), and she makes the role her own. There’s an abundance of blousy, boozy warmth in Balter’s performance, and she and Tasker have sparkling chemistry.

So many moments resonate in this 70-minute story, but for me, this time out, I’ll always remember the four cast members clutching one another as Williams talks about why people are drawn to bars and to tricks – if just to be briefly connected and momentarily not alone. The words are simple but the image, which begins as sort of an orgiastic joke, becomes charged with power.

Audiences in France are in for a treat, but then again, this is Word for Word – they’ve been supplying France with flashes of genius for more than a decade now.

The other big news of the evening was that in the fall, Word for Word’s next production will be several chapters from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. If you’ve read that particular book – sort of a novel in short stories – you know how exciting that is. The only problem for me would be how to choose one story over another.

For information about this and about Word for Word’s annual benefit dinner (featuring a performance from Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate followed by a feast inspired by that book), visit



Theater review: `Three on a Party’


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JoAnne Winter is Cora and Ryan Tasker is Billy in Two on a Party, a theatrical adaptation of a Tennessee Williams short story and a co-production of Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros. The story is one of a trilogy, alongside work by Gertrude Stein and Armistead Maupin, and part of an evening dubbed Three on a Party. Photos by Kent Taylor

Something to celebrate: `Party’ trio brings out best in Word for Word, Rhino

You know something’s working when even Gertrude Stein is the life of the party.

It’s no exaggeration at this point to say that Word for Word is magical. For 16 years now, this company has been creating some of the best theater in the Bay Area out of short works of fiction. Though they change not a word of the original text, their stage works are fully theatrical and quite often more exciting, more moving and more expertly performed than work created expressly for the theater.

The Word for Word alchemy – take a story, add a stage, throw in a dash of brilliance – receives a jolt of inspiration with a new collaborator in the form of Theatre Rhinoceros, the nation’s oldest, continuously operating gay and lesbian theater. The two companies join forces for Three on a Party, an evening of three short stories by gay authors spanning the 20th century, from Stein’s Miss Furr and Miss Skeene (written in 1910, published in Vanity Fair in 1922) to Tennessee Williams’ Two On a Party (written in 1951, published in 1954) to Armistead Maupin’s Suddenly Home (written in 1990).

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I tried to read the Stein story and, to be perfectly honest, couldn’t get through it, which is why I’m all the more impressed with director Delia MacDougall for not only making the story a vibrant piece of theater but also for giving it fully rounded characters and emotional depth. Apparently Stein was trying to do in words what Picasso, in his cubist phase, was doing on canvas. Her Miss Furr and Miss Skeene is almost Dr. Seuss-like in its constant use of the words “gay” and “regular.”

Here’s a taste: “Certainly Helen Furr would not find it gay to stay, she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay, she said she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay where she did not find it gay, she said she found it gay where she did stay and she did stay there where very many were cultivating something. She did say there. She always did find it gay there.”

But MacDougall, along with JoAnne Winter as Miss Furr and Sheila Balter as Miss Skeene and Brendan Godfrey and Ryan Tasker as the people in their lives, find the music and the humor in Stein. What had a tendency to become annoying on the page finds new life and clarity on the stage.

The centerpiece of the evening is the hour-long Williams story about two sozzled soul mates, Cora (Winter) and Billy (Tasker). She’s a barfly with a voracious sexual appetite, and he’s a gay writer more interested in liaisons than letters. They meet in a Broadway bar (where Balter is at the piano playing “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”), and over a double rye on the rocks, recognize something in one another that leads them to join forces – on the man hunt and as partners, of a sort, in life. They begin living and traveling together in pursuit, as Billy says, “of the lyric quarry.” They even make a misguided attempt at sex, which Cora sweetly brushes aside: “Sex has to be slightly selfish to have any real excitement.”

Williams’ writing is thrilling as what seems to be a fairly shallow tale of vice, brutality and hooch deepens into a love story about loneliness, companionship and sexual attraction. Director John Fisher finds endlessly clever ways to keep the story moving and evolving and makes expert use of a giant rectangle that is, by turns, a bar, a hotel desk, a train compartment, an elevator and a Buick Roadmaster.

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Winter and Tasker are extraordinary as they imbue the lush life of their characters with wells of emotion. Cora, whose eyes are described as “a couple of poached eggs in a sea of blood,” is above all else a kind person, and Winter makes that abundantly clear. Cora is complex and darkly shadowed but easy to love. Tasker’s Billy is somewhat aloof, which is not to say he lacks vitality. There’s nothing simple about him, but he’s a visitor to this rambling, shambling life and will eventually return to his world of words and leave life “on the party” behind.

The final piece of the trilogy belongs to San Francisco’s own Maupin, who sets his tale in an idyllic Noe Valley, where Will (Godfrey) and his husband, Jamie (Tasker), are making a happy life for themselves in the shadow of the AIDS plague. They’re visited by Will’s sister, Tess (Balter), who is on her way to Maui and a marriage with a man who treats her less than well.

Also directed by Fisher, and set to the bouncy-but-needy strains of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” Suddenly Home has the familiar rhythms of a sitcom but with some welcome sass and cynicism. Jamie, an AIDS activist, has just returned from a demonstration at Nordstrom and the spiral escalator. He describes it as being “like Tiananmen Square meets Busby Berkeley.”

This is Balter and Godfrey’s chance to shine, and their warmth and familial friction gives the piece a beating heart and some realistic edge.

I’ve said it before, and I plan on saying it again and again: there’s nothing better than a good Word for Word show, and this collaboration with Theatre Rhino is good times three and then some.


Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros’ Three on a Party continues an extended run through June 21 at Theatre Rhino, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415-861-5079 or visit or

Word for Word, Rhino throw a `Party’

Armistead Maupin

I wrote a story for today’s San Francisco Chronicle about the first collaboration between Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros. The two venerable companies are producing Three on a Party, an evening of short stories by Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams and Armistead Maupin.

Read the story here.

For information about Three on a Party visit or

Broadway `Cat’ headed for big screen?

Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photo by the New York Times

Interesting article in Variety about the recent Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose.

Not surprisingly, this camera-ready cast may be taking the play to the big screen. Of course, Cat has already prowled the cinema once before: with Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Elizabeth Taylor in 1958.

The Broadway production, which concludes on June 22, recouped its $2.1 million investment and is happily headed into profit.

Producer Stephen Byrd, who is making noise about the Cat movie, is also considering a simulcast of a live performance of of the play to be shown in Regal Cinemas across the country.

Read the Variety article here.

Visiting Tennessee

This weekend, the Castro Theatre in San Francisco opens a Tennessee Williams film festival sure to excite cats on hot tin roofs everywhere.

The fest begins Sunday (Nov. 12) with Marlon Brando in a tight T-shirt (wouldn’t he have looked good in a forthcoming Theater Dogs T-shirt?) in A Streetcar Named Desire, probably the best stage-to-screen adaptation of any Williams work. Streetcar is in a double feature with The Fugitive Kind starring Brando, Joanne Woodward and Anna Magnani.

The bill for Monday (Nov. 13) includes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Paul Newman in pajama bottoms and Elizabeth Taylor in a slip — see how discussion of Williams devolves into things of a more erotic nature?) featured with Sweet Bird of Youth starring Newman and Geraldine Page.

The lineup on Tuesday (Nov. 14) is Suddenly Last Summer with Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift chewing up the high-calorie scenery, and The Rose Tattoo with Magnani and Burt Lancaster.

Wednesday (Nov. 15) sees Night of the Iguana paired with Boom! (a disaster only worth seeing for Noel Coward’s grace under pressure); and Thursday (Nov. 16, the final day of the fest) offers This Property Is Condemned with Robert Redford and Natalie Wood and Baby Doll with Carroll Baker.

The Castro Theatre (if you haven’t been, it’s one of the last gorgeous movie palaces in the Bay Area) is at 429 Castro St., San Francisco. Call (415) 621-6120 or visit for information.