at the Theatre Building

“I’m gonna let it all hang out,” drawls Tennessee Williams at the start of Confessions of a Nightingale. The statement, so self-consciously “hip,” with its air of a naughty adolescent rebelling against propriety, barely masks its speaker’s tenuous self-confidence; these are the words of a man who’s been through the wringer, trying to stave off age, loss of creative and sexual power, his own inner demons, and the disappearance of fame and honor.

For the next hour and a half, Williams — splendidly portrayed by actor Ray Stricklyn in this one-man, one-act monologue — does indeed let it all hang out. With a reckless, oh-who-gives-a-damn-anymore candor, he speaks of his up-and-down career, his love and sex lives, homosexuality in general, his feelings about his art, and the bitterness and self-recrimination stemming from his relations with his family. While audiences may be drawn to Confessions out of interest in Tennessee Williams, famous playwright and celebrity homosexual, they will discover a man who — like his plays, the bad ones as well as the great ones — embodies the fragility and vitality, the pathos, humor, horror, and wonder, of being human.

Williams’s “confessions” — based by Stricklyn and his coauthor, journalist Charlotte Chandler, on Chandler’s interviews with Williams for her book The Ultimate Seduction — will be familiar to those who have read Williams’s own Memoirs or any of the often self-destructively revealing magazine interviews he gave in the 1970s, after he had recovered from what he called “my stoned age” of the 60s; for others less acquainted with Williams’s personal history, this play will be a significant introduction to the man. Confessions presents Williams as he saw himself; in Stricklyn’s sensitive and skillful performance, we are left to judge for ourselves the contradictions, self-delusions, and unresolved conflicts Williams’s words reveal.

Most one-person stage impersonations of famous literary figures feature extensive passages from their subjects’ work. Emlyn Williams, who is credited with having launched the form in the 1950s with his performance as Charles Dickens, relies exclusively on Dickens’s own texts; Vincent Price and Julie Harris read from Oscar Wilde’s and Emily Dickinson’s writings in their solo portrayals of those authors. Stricklyn, on the other hand, hardly ever turns to Williams’s oeuvre except for occasional one- and two-line quotes to illustrate a point; he assumes instead the audience’s familiarity with the plays and characters he refers to. Though this does allow Stricklyn to keep the show down to one act while covering a great deal of personal information, a few monologues from the plays, as well as excerpts from the less well known poems and short stories, would have more clearly illuminated the author’s talent and the direct link between his life and his work.

Rather, Confessions gives us Williams as the ultimate talk show guest, alternately playing to the audience’s prurient curiosity and succumbing to his own emotions. There are anecdotes about theatrical and literary friends — Tallulah Bankhead (“a tramp, but only in the elegant sense of the word”), Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Elia Kazan, Anna Magnani, and Greta Garbo, plus bitchy asides about his more-or-less friendly rivals Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. There are valuable and incisive reflections on the writer’s art — which, for Williams, was to put as much of himself as possible into his work — along with thoughts on the question of a homosexual sensibility in his (and others’) work. There are heartfelt diatribes against the cruelty of power-hungry critics, as well as a fond nod to Claudia Cassidy, whose praise helped keep The Glass Menagerie alive. There is the story of his long love affair with Frank Merlo — warm and funny anecdotes about their life together, painful memories of their breakup, and furious repudiations of later comments in the gossip press that he deserted Merlo when the latter was dying of cancer. (The recollections of Merlo’s death are especially moving, and weirdly familiar in the age of AIDS.) There are unabashed accounts of his hyperactive sex life, and reveries on the fundamental sense of loneliness, the need for human contact, that motivates human sexuality regardless of what morality or even common sense might dictate.

Perhaps most important, given the intense (though expressionistically stylized) autobiographical streak that runs through Williams’s dramas, are the probing, painful revelations about his family: his puritanical, foolish mother Miss Edwina; his drunken father; his self-righteous brother Dakin, who in the 1960s had Williams committed to a mental home and converted to Roman Catholicism, both, Williams maintained, against his will; and his pathetic, emotionally unstable sister Rose, whom he transformed into the crippled Laura of Glass Menagerie, suffocating under her own shyness and her mother’s dominating presence. (The blame Williams laid on himself for, as he saw it, deserting Rose — and the blame he laid on his mother for ordering that Rose receive a lobotomy after she claimed her father made a pass at her — resonates throughout Glass Menagerie and the later, nightmarish Suddenly, Last Summer, with its horrific subtheme of homosexual self-hate.)

Stricklyn doesn’t look much like Williams — he’s taller, less round, and considerably less dissipated looking — but he’s near-perfect in capturing the external mannerisms — the crocodile croak of a voice, rising in a tremulous cackle before diving into a virile baritone; the nervous chain-smoking; the frequent replenishing of his half-full glass of wine (“Wine doesn’t count,” claims the reformed boozer and pill popper); and the sometimes cocky, sometimes coquettish walk as he paces around the sunny Key West gazebo in which the action is set.

Far more important than the superbly etched externals, though, is Stricklyn’s uncanny evocation of Williams’s emotional essence — the bursts of pathetic self-laceration, the sudden rages at the barbs of critics and the harassment of antigay punks (“a conspiracy to destroy the sensitive people of the earth,” he declares), and the startling, compulsive rushes of biting, bizarre humor. If Tennessee Williams was the greatest playwright of his time, it is because he put his own essence into his writing. Confessions of a Nightingale lays that essence bare, to create a haunting and strangely exhilarating encounter with this most personal of artists.

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