Sunday, 14 May 2017 16:31

Arts Capsule: The Tennessee Williams Festival haunts a mansion

Written by 
L-R: Kelley Weber, Julie Layton, Molly McCaskill L-R: Kelley Weber, Julie Layton, Molly McCaskill

Through May 21st, the Tennessee Williams Festival is presenting Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?, a wildly eccentric 1969 mélange of the playwright's trademark poetic realism, loopy surrealism, and hokey comedy.

Written at a time when the playwright's health and fortunes were on the wane, the play looks like it would be leaden on a conventional stage, but in the highly unconventional setting of the 1890 Stockton House mansion just across the street from Powell Hall it's mostly great fun, inscrutable though it may be.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a familiar Williams trope: the woman waiting in vain for the return of her lover (the titular Mr. Merriweather) who may or may not be real. Louise longs for Mr. Merriweather to call or for his car to appear, while trying to deal with the sexual awakening of her daughter Gloria and the frequent visits of her chatty neighbor Nora and Nora's obsessions with the spirit world and lepers. Meanwhile, a collection of odd characters wanders in and out, including the ghosts of Van Gogh and Rimbaud and a wealthy dowager who has had her face lifted so many times that she now has to encase herself in wax.

One of the rooms in Stockton House

Have I mentioned that Williams was having serious alcohol and drug issues at this point in his life?

So, yes, it's challenging and oddly disjointed material, but under Jef Awada's creative direction it somehow all comes together to make a kind of odd, non-linear sense. Running around 90 minutes in one continuous act, the action of the play moves back and forth among the three downstairs rooms and hallway of the mansion, with the actors leading the audience from one scene to the next often underscored by live banjo music.

Much credit is due to the outstanding performances by the ensemble cast, especially Julie Layton as the increasingly distraught Louise and Molly McCaskill as Gloria, slowly awakening to her womanliness. Kelley Weber's Nora is a comic gem right up to the final scene, when her more tender side is revealed. Webster Conservatory student Jacob Fleiker makes a strong Festival debut as the Romantically Handsome Youth.

All the other roles are played by the versatile ensemble of Terry Meaddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey. They're often cast against physical gender, a tactic that might-but generally doesn't-come across as a simple gimmick. In one especially effective scene they play the Eumenides-the ancient Greek deities of vengeance-as a trio of Vaudeville Irish comics, knitting a web to ensnare the fates of the mortal characters. It's completely ridiculous and highly entertaining.

Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis? is not a play you're likely to see very often, and certainly not in an innovative and polished production like this one, so it's well worth your time. Come early so you can walk around the first floor of Stockton House and admire the eclectic collection of furniture and paintings. The interior of the restored mansion is, in many ways, a key member of the cast, after all. Information on this and other Williams Festival events is available at the festival web site.