By Daniel Gewertz
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.
“The Night of the Iguana” doesn’t get produced as frequently as the other half-dozen of Tennessee Williams’ essential plays. That’s not just because it didn’t win as many awards or sell as many tickets as “Glass Menagerie” or “Streetcar” or “Cat.” It is also among the playwright’s most difficult to pull off. Like Williams’ other major works, “Iguana” possesses a brilliant balance of dueling forces: each character represents a crucial human trait, or, in the more complex characters, a troublesome clash of traits, and their battle is metaphoric and philosophic as well as psychological. The character of Shannon, the dissolute, sinful, regretful ex-pastor, plays a more dominant part in this drama than the leading men do in most other major works of the Williams’ canon. (This dominance has less to do with the number of lines as to the fact that in “Iguana,” Shannon’s female counterweight is portrayed by two characters, the lusty Maxine and the spiritual Hannah.)
The key to delving into the soul of “Iguana” comes down to casting. The American Repertory Theater’s version is a star-studded cast, meaning there are multiple movie and TV actors treading the boards. Broadway is full of such casting, and it usually means a cinema actor draws in the crowd in the lead, and a cast of theater aces often out-act the star. The current “Iguana” is different: the best known movie actors play the more minor roles. James Earl Jones, the 86 year-old theater and movie great, ably plays the small role of Nonno, a nomadic 97 year old poet. Elizabeth Ashley, a lifetime of marvelous stage and screen work under her belt, plays the hell out of another small role – the so-called “butch” Baptist schoolteacher Judith Fellowes, a protector of the virtue of pubescent girls and a force to be reckoned with. And then there is stage and screen veteran Amanda Plummer, the strange, luminous spirit from such films as “The Fisher King” and “Pulp Fiction.” To put it concisely, Ms. Plummer is the only substantial reason to see this “Iguana.” She is nothing less than a wonder.
The only weak side of casting a TV or screen star is Dana Delany, who does not have the dramatic heft to even faintly suggest the role of the widowed hotel-owner Maxine Faulk, a sensual, earthy powerhouse of a survivor played previously on stage by Bette Davis and Shelley Winters, and famously on film by an aging, never-better Ava Gardner. The best that can be said of Delany is that she looks fantastic. Dressed in short-shorts, she appears 25 years younger than her real age. (Delany will turn 61 during the run of the play.) Age is not the issue in this casting. When Davis made her last Broadway appearance in 1961 she was 53, and Winters and Gardner were in their early 40s. Compared to them, Delany looks like a sprightly, athletic girl. But she does not have what counts in this part: the maturity of lived experience, both in terms of sensuality and perseverance. It is only in one brief monologue, when Maxine admits how much she misses her dead husband, that Delany seems multidimensional.
In this “Iguana,” the famous names have the smaller roles while the lead is played by the comparatively little known Bill Heck. Oddly, Heck is the opposite of a ringer: he’s a light-weight taking on one of the heaviest roles of 20th century drama. Lawrence Shannon, played perfectly by Richard Burton in the movie version, is supposed to be a tormented, fascinating torrent of mighty forces. He’s a former Virginian minister who’s lost his faith, a serial seducer of teenage girls, a charmer one moment and a repulsive character the next. His dark past has to be apparent. Heck is more like a Texas bad-boy who doesn’t regret his downfall from grace as much as getting caught. When Heck and Delany share the stage in their first scene they barely make a dramatic ripple.
The setting of “Iguana” is the shabby Costa Verde Hotel on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, circa 1940. Derek McLane’s colorful set design works very gracefully. The effect of a rain storm is phenomenal. Director Michael Wilson is adroit with the action, though one wishes he had instructed Heck to at least talk more slowly. The dialect coach could’ve directed Heck better as well. (Shannen is supposed to be an intelligent, tragic Southerner hit the emotional skids, not a good old boy gone bad.)
Deep into the second act, Williams’ power holds forth, Heck has a few good moments, and Plummer fully takes on the privilege of being the soul of Williams’ unique breed of transcendence. There are moments when “Iguana” threatens to sink into the over-heated poetic airs of Williams’ later plays. But Plummer finds the essence. And it is tear-inducing.
In the world of Tennessee Wiliams, Hannah Jelks is a literary sister of Blanche Dubois. At one point in “Iguana,” Hannah even paraphrases Blanche’s famous phrase: “cruelty is the one unforgivable sin.” Hannah – loving caretaker of her poet grandfather and a self-described old maid and “quick sketch artist” – has some of Blanche’s poetic, delicate refinement. Despite her chastity, she has never failed to love her fellow humans. It is not her sexless life that defines her, but her instinct to forgive and empathize. She is, ultimately, as strong and Blanche is weak, though both characters are bereft at the end of their separate plays.
Plummer’s Hannah is the equal to Deborah Kerr in the movie version of “Iguana.”
As the play was about to start, one audience member behind me said: “I can’t believe I’m going to see Darth Vader in a play!” The appeal of star-gazing aside, James Earl Jones is affecting in his small part, and his famous voice does lovely service to the poetry of Williams. But it is Plummer who is the only real reason to catch this “Iguana.”