by Mike Hoban
Night of the Iguana – Written by Tennessee Williams; Directed by Michael Wilson; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber: Lighting Design by David Lander; Sound Design by John Gromada. Presented by The American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge through March 18.
In “Night of the Iguana” the star-studded production now being mounted by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Tennessee Williams may ostensibly be tackling the weightier themes of sex and religion, but at its core, the play is still about loneliness in its many forms. Williams has assembled a collection of principal characters, led by a “defrocked” clergyman turned second-rate tour guide, that have lived their entire lives without ever making that vital – and risky – connection to another human being. And during the 24 hour span which “Iguana” takes place, we experience the messy process of watching the characters trying to make themselves whole by trying to find that human bond.
The play opens with the recently widowed Maxine being awakened by former preacher T. Lawrence Shannon (Bill Heck), an old friend of she and her husband now seeking refuge from both himself and his enraged tour party, an all-female busload of Baptist college teachers. Maxine (Dana Delany of China Beach fame) is the owner of the Hotel Costa Verde, a rundown resort hotel overlooking the Pacific in Mexico, which she runs with the help of a couple of hunky young Mexican boys, who also service her sexually as part of their job description. Shannon is again in hot water for seducing an underage girl, the same behavior that contributed to him losing his preacher gig, along with referring to God as a “senile delinquent” from the pulpit. Those infractions landed him in a mental institution, and combined with what appears to be a healthy case of alcoholism, he’s never quite put the pieces of his life back together.
As he explains his plight to Maxine, Judith Fellowes (Elizabeth Ashley) the ward of the violated young girl, comes storming into the hotel courtyard, threatening to ruin Shannon. He was supposed to take the party to another hotel closer to the downtown, but in light of the escalating fury of the women, he chose instead to re-group with the help of Fred, Maxine’s now deceased husband. As Judith telephones the authorities, Nantucket “spinster” Hannah Jelkes, a 40ish watercolor artist, appears with her 97-year old grandfather, Jonathan Coffin (James Earl Jones), “the world’s oldest living poet” seeking lodging. She and her grandfather are penniless, but at the urging of Shannon (who may be sensing some form of spiritual connection with the woman), Maxine allows them to stay – for one night only – thus paving the way for a possible redemptive path for some of the play’s lost souls.
It is interesting to note that the only characters in the play who seem to be somewhat emotionally healthy are a pair of Nazi couples vacationing at the hotel. They cavort at the beach, sing songs, and even cheer wildly at the radio reports of London burning. They certainly appear to be much less tortured than any of the play’s main protagonists. In contrast, Maxine’s loveless marriage was marked by serial infidelity on her part, and she confesses to Shannon that communication with her husband had been reduced to occasional grunts before his death. Shannon is essentially an alcoholic man-child incapable of loving anyone, with a history of seducing young women, slapping them around, then asking them to pray with him for forgiveness. Hannah has never had a romantic encounter in her life, but at least her loving relationship with her Grandfather has given her something of the “God consciousness” that Shannon has always lacked, despite his tenure as a preacher. Her spiritual life seems to have a lot less to do with the Bible than real life encounters, as we learn when she tells the on-the-verge-of-madness Shannon, “I respect a person that has had to howl and fight for his decency and bit of goodness much more than I respect the lucky ones that had theirs handed out to them at birth.”
“Night of the Iguana” may not be in the same league as Tennessee Williams’ best work, but as is evident from this well-crafted production, lesser works by a master still make for pretty compelling theater. It is a credit to director Michael Wilson that it never feels like we’re watching a play, but instead are like observers hiding in the bushes of the Mexican rain forest, watching our crazy neighbors play host to their crazier friends. And despite its heavy subject matter, “Iguana” is laugh out loud funny at times, as the characters comically point out each other’s flaws, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much so.
Not surprisingly, a cast loaded with Tony, Golden Globe and Emmy Award winners really delivers the goods. Broadway veteran Bill Heck does a nice job as the tortured Shannon, frequent Williams interpreter Ashley is beautifully blustery as Judith Fellowes, and James Earl Jones trademark basso brings the poet’s work to life in a small but significant role. And Dana Delany (still fetching at 60, convincingly playing the mid-forties character) brings a touching vulnerability to the brassy role of the lusty Maxine. But it is the performance of Amanda Plummer that really stands out. Throughout the play she keeps us off balance, as we wait for the moment when she exposes herself as some sort of grifter, which never comes. The humility she brings to a character that has managed to eke out a fulfilling existence as a glorified beggar is astonishing at times, and her compassion towards the deranged Shannon feels genuine. Kudos also to set designer Derek McLane who captures the steamy feel of the Mexican resort, as well as the rest of the creative team for their spectacular thunderstorm at the close of Act One.
This is a very solid, well-executed production of a lesser work by a great playwright, and well worth a look. For more info, go to: https://americanrepertorytheater.org/