Raven Theatre

In most of his plays, Tennessee Williams wrestled with a theme that haunted his own life until his death: the tormented, near-symbiotic relationship with a beloved, troubled sister. The Glass Menagerie, his most overtly autobiographical work, revolves around the narrator’s guilt over leaving home to escape his oppressive mother and his “painfully shy,” emotionally disturbed sister–as Williams did, only to discover later that his mother had submitted his sister to a prefrontal lobotomy in hopes of curing her condition. The lobotomy left Rose with half a mind, and she was committed to a mental home–a “confinement” that Williams dreaded he would have to endure some day too.

In A Streetcar Named Desire, the crux of the action is again the betrayal of a sister: Blanche is committed to an asylum after her sister Stella refuses to acknowledge that Blanche was raped by Stella’s husband, Stanley. In the character of Blanche–with her penchant for illusion and her destructive sexual promiscuity, her unworldly innocence and her cynical, world-weary humor–Williams put elements of both his sister and himself. He also overtly addressed his terror of madness and incarceration, his inability to ask for help lest well-meaning society rob him of his freedom. Streetcar also reflects Williams’s horror of suicide, when Blanche describes how her homosexual husband shot himself.

In The Two-Character Play, Williams went a step further. The two characters of the title are a brother and sister–a playwright and an actress–but almost from the start one realizes that the play is an interior monologue, a long, anxious, sometimes loony soliloquy of self-examination. It is the work of an exhausted, fear-driven man. By the time The Two-Character Play premiered in London, in 1967, Williams’s best years–artistically, professionally, and personally–were irretrievably behind him. His longtime lover Frank Merlo had died, and critics and audiences both were responding to his newer, more experimental work with indifference or hostility. “I’m living on my nerves,” says one of the two characters. “Sometimes our fear is our private badge of courage,” says the other.

Felice, the brother, and Clare, the sister–it’s no accident that both names are gender-neutral but vaguely feminine–are “playing the provinces” after a series of big-time failures. They find themselves stranded in a run-down old playhouse in a nameless town in a nameless land, broke and abandoned by their fellow actors (“You and your sister are insane,” reads the company’s farewell notice–a line whose commitment to paper must stand as an act of defiant self-testing on Williams’s part). Stuck with only each other, an incomplete set, and an audience demanding to be entertained, Felice and Clare begin to perform “The Two-Character Play,” a work by Felice that Clare loathes because it forces her to confront real-life terrors. Most plays have an objective, a goal that must be attained; in Felice’s “The Two-Character Play,” the characters’ objective is simply to gather the courage to walk out the front door or, later, to commit suicide. The final showdown over a loaded revolver is a hauntingly ambiguous moment of bravery and cowardice leading to a mysterious, magical gesture of union as brother and sister merge into one being.

On the way to this exquisite climax, though, Williams’s The Two-Character Play is an imperfect work. Revised several times since its 1967 debut–it played in Chicago under the title Out Cry, at the Ivanhoe Theater in 1971, with George Keathley directing Eileen Herlie and Donald Madden, and its New York production featured Michael York in his Broadway debut–the script is rambling and sometimes confoundingly muddled as it works out its complex metaphor of one personality splitting into two and then two more in a play within a play. Yet even the muddle is interesting, if as nothing else than a moving portrait of the confused state of Williams’s mind in those desperate years (he was in fact committed to a mental institution in 1969 by his brother Dakin).

And even at its most illogical, Williams’s language is beautiful in its distinctively eccentric but elegant way. Raven Theatre’s intelligent and caring production of the script, though, is frustratingly weak: neither Michael Menendian as Felice nor JoAnn Montemurro as Clare can match the dialogue’s musicality and eloquence with the rich verbal delivery it demands. Montemurro is marginally the better of the two, but mainly because playing the alternately imperious and vulgar Clare requires the actress to travel an extremely broad dynamic range, forcing Montemurro to at least vary her vocal patterns. Menendian, in the less histrionic but still theatrically heightened role of Felice, is feebly inadequate to Williams’s language. I don’t fault either actor in the area of concentration or emotional commitment, but making this text sing as it should requires a level of technical skill that they just don’t have.

Visually and aurally, though, this is a superior production well worth the attention of an audience interested in exploring Williams’s artistry at close range. Under Michael Barto’s direction, The Two-Character Play is very much a work of sound and images. A single, slightly out-of-tune note plunked on a beat-up old piano, a wispy phrase of a piano sonata heard on a cheap cassette player, the clanging echoes resounding through a cavernous old theater–these carefully constructed moments of sound create an eerily evocative atmosphere for the play (Chris Warner’s electronic score is extraordinary). And the close attention in Barto’s staging and Pamela L. Parker’s set and lighting design to Williams’s selection of svmbols–a gun, soap bubbles, a tatty hairpiece and a cheap tiara, an unconnected phone and a staircase that leads nowhere, the hanging ropes and prisonlike catwalks and gradually dimming lights that define Williams’s vision of himself as trapped in an endless nightmare of a play–highlights the spooky, surrealistic beauty of this deeply flawed but deeply personal work by America’s greatest poet of the stage.