Goodman Theatre

Not much seems to happen in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana, now running in a magnificent, revelatory revival at the Goodman Theatre. In this 1961 play no one is led off to the madhouse; no glass menageries come crashing down; there are no abortions or castrations, no suicides or cannibalistic murders. Only a few small victories won by people trying to survive emotionally and physically precarious circumstances. An aged writer finishes his last poem before death takes him; a trapped lizard is cut free from its tether before the kids who tied it up can torture, kill, and eat it; an unstable man staves off a nervous breakdown with help from a new friend who cares about him enough to tie him down and talk him through the panic.

Lacking the sensational histrionics of Williams’s earlier, more frequently performed works, Iguana is a powerfully introspective, hopeful, but peculiarly diffident work. And it takes a production rich in atmosphere and actors who live their roles rather than just portray them to convey the depths of this difficult, beautiful work.

This superb staging, directed by Robert Falls–one of the five or six most satisfying evenings I’ve spent in any theater–is an example of what can happen when artistic vision and technical prowess work in tandem. The brilliant design by Loy Arcenas (set), James F. Ingalls (lights), and Richard Woodbury (sound) creates a completely realistic environment–a run-down Costa Verde hotel nestled in a Mexican jungle complete with hovering mist and a sudden steamy thundershower. It isn’t intended to stun the audience with spectacle but to ground the ensemble in a believable physical world that’s the starting point for their characters’ spiritual journeys. Grand theatrical gestures support the play’s emotional intimacy instead of overwhelming it. Sequences like the rainstorm or the erotically charged opening tableau (of a nearly naked youth washing under an outdoor shower) pave the way for the third-act payoff: a spellbinding, softly spoken conversation between the two central characters, Hannah Jelkes and the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, that leads to each one’s acceptance of a fragile, lonely life that’s better than the ever-lurking alternatives: death or emotional crack-up.

Hannah and Shannon (the assonance of their names underscores the link between them) are mirror images–and reflections of their creator. Based on a short story of the same title that Williams wrote following a vacation in 1940, the year the play takes place, in a hotel very much like the Costa Verde, Iguana dramatizes Williams’s obsessive conflict between the need for connection and the fear of intimacy. Hannah is a middle-aged virgin, a painter who does character sketches to pay her way as she moves through international society. Shannon is an Episcopal priest fired by his congregation because of his womanizing and heretical sermonizing; now he’s a tour guide, leading groups of gawkers through the hellholes and fleshpots of the world.

Hannah and Shannon’s vocations are surrogates for different aspects of Williams’s work; so is the calling followed by Hannah’s blind poet-philosopher grandfather, Jonathan Coffin, “97 years young” and determined to finish one last elegy before he dies. (The death-symbolizing surname was the middle name of Williams’s father, a descendant of the poet Robert Tristram Coffin; the old man’s nickname, Nonno, was the same one used by Williams’s longtime lover, Frank Merlo, for Williams’s grandfather–an Episcopal priest and tour guide.) Artistic mission is a crucial theme, but Williams undercuts its potential pretentiousness with sardonic jokes about the ruthless hustling that is as much a part of the artist’s life as noble aspiration: “What was the take?” Coffin asks Hannah after delivering one of his grandiloquent recitations to a family of Nazis, the hotel’s only paying guests.

Standing apart from the Shannon/Hannah/Nonno trinity is Maxine Faulk, the Costa Verde’s earth-mother owner–“larger than life and twice as unnatural,” Shannon quips–to whom Shannon has come seeking sanctuary from a hilarious, harrowing tour party of Baptist women, whose youngest member, a precocious teenager named Charlotte Goodall, has fallen in love with him. Maxine, the play’s hard-bitten reality principle, wants to keep Shannon as a replacement for her recently deceased husband. Her biggest obstacles–the ones that in real life destroyed Williams’s relationship with Merlo even as Iguana was being written (note the inversion of Merlo’s initials in Maxine’s)–are the doubts and devils whose presence in all of us gives Williams’s plays their universality despite his characters’ eccentricity: the tension between sex and spirit, the fear of physical and mental incapacity, spiritual ambivalence and the yearning for religious faith, the need for love and the doubts about one’s ability and worthiness to give and receive love.

Using Susan Hilferty’s costumes to reinforce the symbolic structure–Shannon, Hannah, and Nonno are dressed in varying shades of white, while Maxine goes in for red and blue denim–Falls skillfully guides his actors through the script’s opposing currents of terror, humor, passion, cynicism, joy, and resignation. In the leads, William Petersen and Cherry Jones are an exquisite, unorthodox match whose chemistry is symbiotic, not sexual–a crucial factor that turns the audience’s attention away from false sentimentality and toward the characters’ psychologies. In a role too often played for poignant ethereality, Jones is a tough, bemused, worldly Hannah; Petersen, foregoing the obvious interpretation of Shannon as brooding sexpot, offers a high-strung hysteric whose fussy gestures, recalling Williams’s own (he delivers one crucial monologue from a wicker chair like the one Williams preferred), gradually and tellingly subside along with his fevered fearfulness.

Cynthia Baker, in fine lusty form (and with a perfect barking laugh) as Maxine, heads a supporting cast that includes Lawrence McCauley, who grows into a moving Nonno after a slightly too comedic entrance; Paula Korologos as Charlotte; and Matt DeCaro and Dev Kennedy as the tough guys who take over Shannon’s tour.

But the strength of this extraordinary production lies in more than the excellent acting. It rests in the rare directorial sensitivity to a difficult, richly rewarding script that relies almost entirely on language and atmosphere to communicate a painfully earned reconciliation within the restless human heart.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.