One Arm

About Face Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and Tectonic Theater Project

at Steppenwolf

Tennessee Williams died in 1983, but, as he wrote in his 1945 short story “One Arm,” “death has never been much in the way of completion.” Sixty years ago this month Chicago hosted the world premiere of Williams’s breakthrough,

The Glass Menagerie. Now another important and compelling Williams work makes its debut here: director Moises Kaufman’s stage version of “One Arm” and Williams’s unproduced 1972 screenplay of the same title. A collaboration between Steppenwolf, About Face Theatre, and Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project, One Arm is still a work in progress. But in Kaufman’s sensitive adaptation, it’s far better than most of Williams’s later efforts. And as a showcase for a breathtaking lead performance by the brilliant and charismatic young Reynaldo Rosales, it’s not to be missed.

One Arm is the offbeat tale of Ollie, a male prostitute prowling the sexual underworlds of New Orleans and New York in the years before Pearl Harbor. (In the original story, Ollie’s last name is Winemiller, which Williams later assigned to the heroine of his play Summer and Smoke–a prim minister’s daughter who becomes a whore.) Ollie is an ex-sailor and once-promising boxer who lost an arm not in battle but in a stupid drunk-driving accident. Embittered by having his athletic career cut short, the macho muscleman decides that all he has to offer is his powerful but imperfect body, which to some gay men exerts the allure of a “broken Apollo”–a disfigured classical sculpture come to life. Ollie retreats into emotional isolation to turn tricks, but his disgust and self-loathing eventually erupt in brutal violence that leads to his conviction for murder. Awaiting “the mechanical cruelty of the law” on death row, Ollie receives mail from thousands of his former customers–letters expressing affection, concern, and gratitude for their intense if brief encounters–and he becomes aware of the warmth he has brought to people’s lives, of the debts we owe each other, and of the unfinished business we all leave as we face death.

Williams’s tale was inspired by a real hustler he knew in the French Quarter, and of course the sexy but luckless stud is an iconic figure in the works of Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Gore Vidal, and James Leo Herlihy, whose Midnight Cowboy enjoyed a cinematic success that may have inspired Williams to adapt “One Arm” for the screen. The rough-edged Ollie also recalls Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, but despite his explosive temper, Ollie is never guilty of deliberate cruelty–the one unforgivable sin in Williams’s moral universe. He’s a memorable addition to Williams’s “swarm of the fugitive kind”–the restless, wounded men and women who populate Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana. And, like all of Williams’s great characters, Ollie is a projection of the writer himself. His panicky paranoia while incarcerated is a reflection of Williams’s own horror of institutionalization. Just three years before Williams wrote the “One Arm” screenplay he had been committed to an asylum after a mental breakdown.

Kaufman has scrapped some of the screenplay’s more dated dialogue and contributed new material, but he retains Williams’s distinctive mix of brutality and tenderness, poetry and pathos, grit and gallows humor. The production avoids graphic violence and grotesquerie: Ollie’s fatal beating of a porn-film producer and his eventual execution are presented symbolically, not literally, and Rosales makes no attempt to hide his right arm. He simply lets it hang limp at his side to suggest its absence. Yet whether he’s casually cruising the streets or effortfully writing letters, gently stroking a lover or taking a photograph with a clunky old Kodak, Rosales’s Ollie is a model of physical grace. Happily, the actor has more going for him than an impressive physique, which costume designer Janice Pytel accentuates with tight trousers and a T-shirt. Williams wanted to reveal the emotional complexity of a man most observers would dismiss as just a piece of street meat. Rosales’s protean performance–filled with bravado and vulnerability, quiet sensitivity and caustic bitchiness–brings the character to rich, vivid life.

On Derek McLane’s abstract set–a bare stage framed by black industrial catwalks that’s evocatively lit by Mike Baldassari–the 12 members of the strong supporting ensemble play multiple roles. Especially fine work comes from Steve Key as a repressed divinity student who visits Ollie in his cell, Michael Stahl-David as the fey young dandy who initiates Ollie into “the mysteries of the park,” Joe Van Slyke as a wealthy john, and Kelli Simpkins as a shy young woman with whom Ollie has a rare, fleeting heterosexual encounter.

For Kaufman, the process of making theater is often as important as the results. The Laramie Project, his acclaimed examination of the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, is as much about his actors’ responses to the killing as about the crime itself. Similarly, One Arm is in part about the creation of a play from extant sources. The evening begins with a narrator reading from Williams’s introduction to his screenplay: “I have conceived of the film as a dark poem whose theme is the prevalence of mutilations among us all, and their possible transcendence.” The narrator, costumed as a 1940s radio announcer, goes on to deliver a running commentary compiled from the original story’s third-person prose and the screenplay’s directions (“exterior: close-up of Ollie,” “dissolve to boxing arena”), a sometimes gimmicky distancing device.

The show’s great strength, not surprisingly, is its dialogue. One Arm has its share of vintage Williams exchanges: “May I enquire what special endowments you have that are worthy of this exorbitant price?” a rich john asks Ollie. “I have the special endowment of a mutilation,” the hustler replies. Capping the play is a riveting, heartbreaking monologue that Rosales delivers with tremendous power.

When “One Arm” was published in 1948 (as part of a collection that also included “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” the story that became The Glass Menagerie), its candid, sympathetic portrait of a hustler and his clients was bravely pioneering–as was its indictment of capital punishment and its depiction of sexual weakness among the religious minded. Today the sexual theme has little shock value. Indeed, some may find it cliched and dated in its depiction of homosexuality as a furtive activity. But as the product of an upbringing that Gore Vidal (in his introduction to Williams’s collected stories) describes as “lower middle class WASP, Southern airs-and-graces division,” Williams was honestly conflicted about his own sexuality. He eagerly pursued sex with men, in both committed relationships and one-night stands. What some regarded as sordid encounters were, to him, moments of grace, affirmations of the need for contact that makes us human. Yet the sexual confusion expressed in such works as Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer was also deeply felt. America’s greatest gay writer was one hung-up homo.

Ollie engages in thousands of anonymous sexual encounters but takes pride in his refusal to kiss a man on the lips. Yet in his last hours on earth he offers himself to another man not for money but to find some emotional and sexual connection. Is Ollie gay? One Arm is inconclusive; Kaufman has resisted any temptation to tidy up Williams’s messy sexuality. Ironically, in a culture hospitable to playfully proud gay identities (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will & Grace), erotic ambiguity can be as provocative as it was when homosexuality was a shameful secret. That ambiguity, along with Rosales’s performance, is what gives One Arm a special haunting power.

“Every moment of human existence is alive with uncertainty,” Williams wrote in a 1955 essay responding to criticism of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “You may call it ambiguity, you may even call it evasive. I want [audiences] to leave [the theater] feeling that they have met with a vividly allusive, as well as disturbingly elusive, fragment of human experience, one that not only points at truth but at the mysteries of it, much as they will leave this world when they leave it, still wondering somewhat about what happened to them.” As well as any of Williams’s best work, and better than most of it, One Arm achieves that aim.

When: Through 12/19: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, downstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $20-$55

Info: 312-335-1650

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