John Mossman and Miranda Zola
John Mossman and Miranda Zola Credit: Tim Knight

It was all downhill from here. The Night of the Iguana was Tennessee Williams’s last hit on Broadway and his last major artistic achievement. It premiered in 1961, at the beginning of a decade that would end with the author’s stay in the psych ward. Beset by flops, grieved by loss (his partner, Frank Merlo, died of lung cancer in 1963), and hounded by his own lifelong demons, Williams would sink into a severe depression, compounded by pills and booze. He called it his “Stoned Age.” His work never fully recovered.

In 1961 all of that was still ahead of him, but Williams already knew what it means to come to the end of your rope. His deepest sympathies and most sensitive writing are always reserved for characters in just that state of lonely desperation. As Hannah Jelkes, Iguana‘s steady moral center, puts it, “I respect a person that has had to fight and howl for his decency and his bit of goodness, much more than I respect the lucky ones that just had theirs handed out to them at birth and never afterwards snatched away from them by unbearable torments.” Williams should have had that printed on his business cards.

The play, currently receiving a mixed-bag staging at the Artistic Home’s brand-new storefront space in West Town, unfolds on the veranda of the ramshackle Costa Verde Hotel on the west coast of Mexico. The owner of the place is an earthy widow named Maxine (Miranda Zola), who has a rapacious libido, strong survival instincts, and a barking laugh like Phyllis Diller’s. Though it’s the off-season, Maxine and her staff have a hotel full of guests, including a family of German tourists and a busload of teachers from a Baptist women’s college in Blowing Rock, Texas (Maxine describes them as “a football squad of old maids”).

The churchwomen have been brought to the Costa Verde by the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, an Episcopal minister turned tour guide on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Just a year after ordination, Shannon was removed from his post for fornicating with a Sunday school teacher and preaching heresy from the pulpit. Ever since, he’s been crisscrossing the globe as a guide, collecting evidence of God’s cruelty and leading young women into sin. At the same time, he’s pursued by what he calls “the spook”—a sense of panic and a drive to self-destruct that periodically becomes unendurable. His plan is to ride it out by stationing himself in Maxine’s hammock and staring into the rain forest for a while.

In John Huston’s 1964 movie adaptation, Richard Burton plays Shannon with his usual air of manly melancholy. You can almost smell the musk and whiskey emanating from the screen. In the Artistic Home’s production, on the other hand, John Mossman fills the role with outrage and barely contained hysteria. Soaked with sweat and talking a mile a minute, his Shannon is a spiritual fugitive who both fears and welcomes the thunderbolt he expects to strike him down at any moment.

Mossman’s performance is far and away the best thing about Kathy Scambiatterra’s staging, which seems intended to supply the sort of volatile intensity often associated with Chicago storefront theater. There’s a fair amount of close-range screaming, and even a knockdown, drag-out fight when Shannon refuses to turn the bus key over to his tour group. This approach captures the frenzied and brutal aspects of Shannon’s existence, but shortchanges Williams’s lyricism.

That’s mostly due to the production’s handling of the play’s final major character, Hannah Jelkes. A New England spinster pushing 40, Hannah shows up at the Costa Verde with her 97-year-old grandfather, Nonno (played by Walter Brody with a blend of pathos and dignity). Hannah is a painter; Nonno is the world’s “oldest living and practicing poet.” They make money selling watercolors and recitations to guests at hotels, but at the moment, they’re flat broke. Nonno appears to be on his last legs.

Unexpectedly, Hannah and Shannon forge a connection. Not a romantic one—just a little understanding between two lost souls on the edge of a rain forest. In the characters’ long, poignant exchanges with each other, Williams suggests that these scraps of compassion are the most we can hope for in a world that’s otherwise cruel or indifferent.

Hannah isn’t an easy part to play. She has a gloomy side and can wheel and deal when she needs to, but her boundless compassion can make her seem saintly and remote. In Kelly Owens’s performance, she comes across as extremely sleepy. Perhaps intending to convey the weariness at the end of a journey, Owens delivers nearly all her lines with a sigh and a shrug, draining the play of its gumption as well as its only spark of hope. Some of Williams’s most moving lines are drowned out by the noise surrounding them.