SNATCHING AND TEARING, LIVING AN’ DYING
Temporary Theatre Company
at the Prism Gallery
Of the six Tennessee Williams one-acts that the Temporary Theatre Company planned to stage under the title Snatching and Tearing, Living an’ Dying, the one I find most interesting was one I didn’t see. At first the Williams estate refused to grant the rights to Steps Must Be Gentle, a dialogue meant to take place between Hart Crane and his mother after Crane’s death. Williams idolized Crane, who committed suicide at the age of 32 by jumping from a ship sailing from Mexico, and was fascinated by this flamboyant gesture, especially since Crane’s life paralleled his own in so many ways: miserable home life, oppressive father, craving for alcohol, promiscuous homosexuality, dedication to poetry. In the play, Crane’s mother, Grace, is seeking an answer to the question Williams himself obviously wanted to ask–why did Hart Crane kill himself? The conversation quickly descends into accusations and rancor; it’s easy to imagine Williams locked in a similar confrontation with his own mother.
Steps Must Be Gentle provides a tantalizing peek into Williams’s preoccupation with death, suicide, and creativity. The Williams estate has recently reversed its decision and the one-act has been restored to this collection, a compendium of the themes, obsessions, and characters that recur in Williams’s work. Identifying the threads in these one-acts that also run through his better-known plays provides most of the entertainment this show has to offer.
Consider Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry, written in 1940. The play, a revision of a student effort by Williams called Hot Milk at Three in the Morning, is about a lumberjack who has been forced to take a job in a factory to support his wife and newborn daughter. The shrewish wife (Kim Swinton) foreshadows a number of Williams’s unpleasant female characters. And Moony (Vincent Raye) embodies the frustrated ambitions and need for escape that characterize Tom in The Glass Menagerie.
The Case of the Crushed Petunias (1948), which Williams called a “lyrical fantasy,” is about Dorothy Simple, who runs a notions shop in Primanproper, Massachusetts. One day Dorothy (Carol-Ann Black) discovers that someone has trampled the petunias that “barricade” her house. The culprit (B. Marcus Mitchell) comes into her shop and confesses, offering her as restitution seeds for wild roses. Dorothy objects, claiming that flowers shouldn’t be allowed to grow wild. “Ahhh, I see,” says the man. “You’re a horticultural fascist!” The petunias symbolize the trivial concerns that cut people off from life, and the wild roses are the antidote. “We have to use the same aggressive methods of promotion used by Death, Unlimited, ” the man explains. “We’ve got to show people that the malignantly trivial little petunias of the world can be eliminated more cleanly, permanently, and completely by Life, Incorporated than by Death, Unlimited.”
Williams’s sister, who suffered from schizophrenia, was named Rose, and Williams always felt tremendous guilt for the lobotomy she received in 1937. Roses were a powerful symbol for him, and rose imagery appears in numerous plays, such as The Rose Tattoo, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More, and Small Craft Warnings. In Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry, Moony recounts how he and his wife fell for each other while slow dancing to “Roses of Picardy.” The reference to roses in Crushed Petunias is simply a more blatant than usual use of the rose metaphor.
I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, written in 1966, is about a woman on the brink of death (Phebe E. Bohart) who is receiving her daily visit from a young man (Kevin J. Kenneally), possibly her lover, whose terrible stutter suggests the repressed sexuality of their relationship. She tells him a story about a man who came to Death’s house too early but wanted to be admitted anyway. He cried and yelled so loudly that Death heard him and told the guard to let him in. “Under some circumstances, especially when they shout their heads off at the gates, they can be let in early,” Death says.
This story was very meaningful to Williams: in 1981, in a letter to Greg Mosher, then the artistic director of the Goodman Theater, he said that the woman’s story from I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow was a perfect description of how he’d felt since the death of his lover, Frank Merlo, nearly 20 years earlier. Williams felt himself to be wandering in what the woman in the play calls “Dragon Country, the country of pain. . . . Each one crossing through that huge, barren country has his own separate track to follow across it alone.”
The final two plays in this Temporary Theater production are character sketches of eccentric women–smart, silly, manipulative females like Maggie’s obnoxious sister- in-law in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who go after what they want with little regard for the ethics involved. Lord Byron’s Love Letter, written in 1945, is about an old woman (Helen M. AshWestphal) who lives in New Orleans and makes money by having a younger woman (Celeste Mrakovich) show visitors a letter purportedly written by Lord Byron.
A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot, written in 1958, is about two aging prostitutes (Bohart and Swinton) who are trying to drum up a little business during a convention of the Sons of Mars. One of the women has just had her fortune told by a coin-operated mechanical parrot that picked out of the pile of fortunes a piece of paper saying: “You have a sensitive nature, and are frequently misunderstood by your close companions.” She considers the analysis perfect, although subsequent conversation reveals the opposite is true.
Temporary Theater’s production is rudimentary. The playing space, tucked into the rear of Evanston’s Prism Gallery, is makeshift, and the performances tend to be unsophisticated. Bohart is convincing as the tortured woman in I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, however, and Swinton is a wonderfully vicious shrew in Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry. Both return with interesting performances in A Perfect Analysis.
But this isn’t a show that gets by on the quality of the staging. Snatching and Tearing, Living an’ Dying is an opportunity to see some rarely staged plays by Tennessee Williams, and that alone is enough to excuse any shortcomings in the production.