“The Tennessee Menagerie” at 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

“The Tennessee Menagerie” by Craig Miller and Lennie Dean

6th Street Playhouse Studio Theatre, Santa Rosa CA

                                                                   Photo by Eric Chazankin:
From left (kneeling) Paige Picard, Laura Davies, Rebekah Patti, Jacquelyn Wells, Lito Briano

An Evening With the Women of Tennessee Williams

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Perhaps more than any other playwright of the modern era, Tennessee Williams is inextricably linked with his characters. He wrote from life, crafting his vivid, tormented women from aspects of his own personality and those of his mother and sister, whose influence overshadowed his world. Even if you don’t know much about the personal life of the famed playwright, by the end of “The Tennessee Menagerie” you will feel as if you had looked into his very soul.

In its world premiere at 6th Street Studio Theatre, this unique and daring ensemble piece, set at the dawn of Williams’ career in 1939, seeks to illustrate how his inner demons, what he called “blue devils”, haunted him like phantoms. Writing served as a kind of catharsis for him, and the process of purging those “blue devils” became the stories so beloved to theatergoers.

In creating this original new play, there was not so much a script as a concept, developed by 6th Street Artistic Director Craig Miller and director/dramaturge Lennie Dean. It was conceived with their vision and shaped during a collaborative process between performers and director. Dean asked each actress to find lines in 15 of Williams’ plays that dealt with various specific emotions or thoughts, and then to find the character associated with those lines that they could best connect with on an emotional level. This is the same process Williams himself had used with actors, bringing them into the dialogue process and allowing the play to take form through them, the ones speaking the lines.

In fact, every word spoken in this play is either taken directly from one of Williams’ plays or from his own private journals. One actor plays Williams himself (Lito Briano), and seven actresses play multiple characters, each representing an experience or person in Williams’ life. One of the most unforgettable and disturbing scenes comes in the middle of the second act, with Williams writhing on his bed in anguish to lines from “Suddenly Last Summer”, where Mrs. Venable (Sheila Lichirie) describes the hatchling baby sea turtles and their desperate race to the sea to escape being devoured by the “flesh-eating birds” swooping down from the sky. Williams himself seems to fear being devoured by the seven ladies closing in around him, specters of his own terror and self-loathing.

Each of the actresses shines in a particular role: Courtney Arnold (as Carol, “Orpheus Descending”), Laura Davies (as Landlady, “The Strangest Kind of Romance”), Rebekah Patti (as Blanche from “A Streetcar Named Desire”), Paige Picard (as Bertha, “Hello From Bertha”), Jessica Short (as Maggie, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) and Jacquelyn Wells (as Alexandra, “Sweet Bird of Youth”). As for Briano, he seemed to be inconsistent and superficial in his portrayal of Williams. At times, he did plumb the depths of Williams’ despair and brilliance, but not often enough.

According to Craig Miller, this is the first time 6th Street has presented a play in a “theatre-in-the-round” setting, where the audience completely surrounds the stage and performers. This is a seldom-used method of staging due to its difficulty for the director and actors in playing to an audience on all four sides. Dean’s staging was adventurous and effective in how she inter-related the lines and characters from Williams’ different plays with each other, and how they, in turn, spoke those lines directly to the Williams character.

The spellbinding visual impact of this play is due not only to the efforts of the performers and director, but to those of the technical staff. There are stunning effects by April George, who creates pools of water, flickering flames and deadly flocks of seabirds with nothing more than moving light and shadow. Sound design by Craig Miller effectively recalls 1930s New Orleans jazz and street sounds. Erika Hauptman’s costumes are evocative of the era and Williams’ own place in it.

“The Tennessee Menagerie” contains obscure references and confusing situations for those not acquainted with the works of Tennessee Williams. This strangely compelling work of theatre art will appeal to anyone with a healthy curiosity and appreciation of fine writing.

When: Now through April 7, 2012
8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Sundays
2:00 p.m. Saturday, April 7
Tickets: $10 to $25
Location: Studio Theatre at 6th Street Playhouse
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com