HELLO FROM BERTHA
and THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED
“What a girl needs to get along is social training,” declares Willie, the adolescent heroine of Tennessee Williams’s This Property Is Condemned. And at the end of Hello From Bertha, the other half of Raven Theatre’s current “Shorties” program of Williams one-acts, a dying, penniless whore, writing to a long-lost beau for help, disguises her desperation with a quick, upbeat message: “Hello from Bertha to Charlie with all her love.”
Bertha and Willie may not have the depth of the heroines of Williams’s longer, dramatically fuller, more heavily plotted plays–A Streetcar Named Desire’s Blanche, for example, or Summer and Smoke’s Miss Alma, or The Night of the Iguana’s Hannah–but all these Williams women are sisters under the skin, and the skin they’re under is Williams’s. The demons that drove the writer–his obsessions with the conflict between spirit and flesh, his terror of disease, madness, desertion, and death–motor the subjects of these two brief character studies. What makes Williams continuously fascinating is the way he takes the lives of these oddball outsiders and, through the power of his poetry and the investment of his own passion, makes them convincing portraits of the general human condition.
In pairing these two plays (which together last barely an hour), director Steven Fedoruk reinforces the universality of Williams’s vision. This Property Is Condemned depicts a teenage girl recalling her older sister’s death and prophesying her own; Hello From Bertha shows the death of a woman who might well be that teenager grown up. That Bertha is a prostitute and that young Willie very likely will grow up to become a prostitute might at first seem to relegate them to the fringes of life–but not to Williams, who finds in the essential aloneness of these women a compelling metaphor for the human experience.
When we first see Willie, she is walking on railroad tracks–more precisely, on one track, like a tightrope walker, seeing how far she can go before she falls off. It’s a child’s game, of course, and Willie is still very much a child; she clings fiercely to a battered baby doll and wears beat-up overalls, and talks in a voice she might have picked up from Shirley Temple. But another part of her idolizes another movie star of her day (the play is set in a small southern town in the mid-1930s)–Greta Garbo, who made death so poetic and glamorous in Camille. When Willie’s older sister Alva died from tuberculosis, it wasn’t nearly as lovely as in the movies; Willie will take the movies.
Interrupted in her solo make-believe game by a local boy, Tom, Willie regales the boy with fragmented memories of her family life: her parents kept a boarding house that catered to traveling men who worked for the railroad; her sister Alva “was the main attraction” at the boarding house; now Alva’s dead, Mama ran off with a boarder, Daddy’s disappeared, and Willie lives by herself in the big house with the sign that says “This property is condemned.” Tom reminds Willie of the time she danced naked for another boy in town and asks if she’ll do the same for him; she rebuffs him with fantasies of dancing in high-heeled shoes with the local freight superintendent who’ll take care of her now that much-envied Alva is dead.
What matters in this sordid little story aren’t its specifics but Willie’s reactions to them–especially here, in Colleen Kane’s beautifully modulated and felt performance as Willie. Staring at a distant memory as she talks about her sister to Tom (adequately played by Ron Sherry), bursting out with hoarse teenage giggles as she imitates a stripper, crooning a hillbilly rendition of “My Blue Heaven,” suddenly exploding with fear and anger on a key word, tumbling like a tomboy one moment and preening in her sister’s ruffled party dress the next, Kane registers a mixture of terror, defiant determination, and macabre gallows humor that’s perfect for Williams.
Nothing in Hello From Bertha is this well played, so the poetic and black-comic dimensions of this play don’t register with the same fevered force. In a run-down bordello in East Saint Louis, with the sound of scratchy blues records and sexy laughter creeping through the walls, big blond Bertha lies in bed, destitute, physically deteriorated, and spiritually paralyzed. Goldie, the wan madam, tries to prod Bertha out of the bed so it can be used by other girls. “Where you goin’ from here?” says Goldie, asking the question that tormented Williams and that ultimately lies at the core of every one of his plays. Disoriented and slightly demented from illness, Bertha rants that Goldie has robbed her, then asks a young whore named Lena to take down her letter to Charlie, the probably imaginary boyfriend who, Bertha says, will come to take her to safety. As Bertha dictates a long, heartrending letter, Lena sits still, not writing down a single word; could a playwright have imagined a more terrifying ending to a life? Then, rallying in her final moments, Bertha tells Lena to destroy the unwritten letter and instead take down her simple, gallant message: “Love from Bertha . . . ”
Whether miscast or misdirected, Kathleen A. Dunn fails to strike any resonances in the role of Bertha; she looks too healthy for one thing, and her muted speaking style misses the haunted cadences that fill Williams’s writing. Susan Karsnick and Janet Roderick provide bland support as Goldie and Lena, but it’s Bertha’s play; the irony and anguish that Kane brings out so compellingly in This Property Is Condemned are conspicuously absent in this deathbed tableau.