Center Theater

Some plays are more therapy than theater–especially when they echo a playwright’s cry for help. None do it so obviously as the works Tennessee Williams produced in the 60s. During that dark decade, when he constantly feared losing his voice and maybe his mind, Williams cut himself off from the world and, increasingly, from himself. In 1969 he was institutionalized for drug and alcohol abuse, free-floating paranoia, and suicidal impulses.

The pain overwhelms his 1967 outcry Kingdom of Earth, now playing in an intriguing midwest premiere by Center Theater. In it Williams not only tries to exorcise his demons–he tries to kill himself off as well.

Though the playwright put parts of himself in all his great characters (most notably Blanche DuBois, Brick Pollitt, and Tom Wingfield), he must have been at his most masochistic when he imagined himself as Lot Ravenstock, a self-described “impotent, one-legged sissy with one foot in the grave.” Lot is dying of TB and desperate to cling to any legacy–if not a child of his own, then the land he grew up on. But death threatens (or promises) to take it away. Haunted by the memory of his dead mother, the only woman he’s loved, Lot naively believes that female devotion will free him of his fears. The woman he hopes will provide that loyalty is Myrtle, a blowsy show girl he married two days before, after meeting her on the set of a TV show: she was being crowned “Queen for a Day.”

He returns with his bride–it’s 1960–to his family’s Mississippi farm just as it’s about to be flooded: heavy symbolism here of the destruction that precedes fecundity and renewal. Lot wants Myrtle to inherit the estate, but the land already has an owner–Chicken, Lot’s half-brother, a brutal loner who’s part black and all fury. Chicken holds a will Lot signed when he was desperate for someone to tend the land after his mother died. Lot wants Myrtle to destroy the agreement so she can take the property (a plot device he’s unashamedly borrowed from A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).

Predictably, Chicken will own not only the home but Myrtle. Weak and helpless, Lot self-destructs in his death chamber upstairs (summoning just enough energy to don his mother’s clothes, Psycho-style) while Myrtle succumbs to the attractions of muscular, loutish Chicken–who also promises to save her from the flood. Finally, in the play’s rhapsodic conclusion, Chicken praises the power of a man’s love for a woman. After making Myrtle promise to breed him a son, he takes her to the roof as the music swells in triumph.

Williams could not have more thoroughly erased himself if he had committed suicide. The heterosexual Chicken–a blatant Stanley Kowalski spin-off who believes you have to be as “hard as life”–is the author’s psychological, ideological, and physical nemesis; his triumph means Tennessee’s demise.

Though defeat stalks all of Williams’s sensitive souls, they usually retain enough spunk, humor, or pathos to go down with class. But in Kingdom of Earth Williams confines his decadent surrogate, a ghastly transvestite with bleached blond hair, to an upstairs bedroom, allowing him only the brief dignity of dying in his burly brother’s arms. In this play Williams’s grand compassion and unashamed sentiment run out, as they had in himself. (That lack of passion-in- defeat may explain the failure of the original 1968 production, which lasted only 29 performances though it boasted a superb Estelle Parsons as Myrtle. But recent revivals in London and Saint Petersburg have given the play new currency.)

Fortunately, the work’s center belongs to earth mother Myrtle, a cracked Memphis belle who clings to her genteel pretensions despite a lifetime of scrounging. Myrtle is a vibrant creation in a death-stung play, lifting it from the flood of self-pity that threatens to engulf it.

Weak as the script may be, director Dale Calandra has given it a sturdy, centered staging. Best is Marlene DuBois’s good-time girl Myrtle. In a cunning comic portrayal worthy of Shelley Winters at her frowzy best, DuBois deftly captures Myrtle’s vitality, her frenetically misdirected loyalties, and her poignant drive to mother men (though by the end she’s like a child contentedly cooing on macho Chicken’s chest). It’s a rich portrayal full of hilarious vulnerability–a strange amalgam. DuBois’s horny, human Myrtle lifts this melodrama above the level of soap.

Champ Clark brings a moribund, empty dignity to Lot, playing him as if he were auditioning for an autopsy. If you imagine Lot as in a way already dead and concerned only with stage-managing the sequel, he gains some creepy stature. But Williams, true to his self-loathing, at the end makes Lot scream out that all he’s accomplished is to procure a whore for his brother’s pleasure. This is Williams vs Williams in a no-win fight.

John Mossman plays Chicken with brutal confidence and smoldering sensuality. Williams attempted to flesh out this revenge figure, this tough guy, by giving him a single weakness–rage over being ostracized because his mother was part black. It’s too little to rescue Chicken from his caveman sensibility, but Mossman registers a rage that seems to have taken a lifetime to fester and makes it the anchor for the man’s ferocity.

Brett A. Snodgrass’s sinister set suggests the fate that awaits the Ravenstock house: Snodgrass carves the doomed ramshackle mansion into sepulchral playing areas. Though at times Joe Cerqua’s sound design is a tad too menacing, it does evoke the kind of Grand Guignol creepiness that Williams relished; it also keeps the audience from chuckling as the play lurches into its southern Gothic finale.