By 1959, successful playwright Tennessee Williams had earned two Pulitzer Prizes, three New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, three Donaldson Awards, and one Tony Award; he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1979. His output was staggering, including nine apprentice plays, 29 major plays, 70 one-act plays, nine screenplays and teleplays, two novels, numerous short stories, and poetry. He was still turning out plays in 1983, when he died of “Seconal intolerance” at the age of 71, likely related to his increasing alcohol and prescription drug abuse over the years.
Even a renowned playwright like Tennessee Williams sometimes felt that he could do better. When he was 37 years old, he wrote the successful “Summer and Smoke,” a play about straight-laced, repressed Alma Winemiller, a minister’s daughter who pines for her next-door neighbor John but is unable to express those feelings. As Williams matured, so too did his views of unrequited love and the overlapping roles of the physical and spiritual in sexuality. The outcome was the resurrection of Alma as the lead character in THE ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE, a rewrite of “Summer and Smoke” written 14 years later. Alma is no longer a timid victim without a voice but instead a woman who speaks her feelings at every opportunity and freely broadcasts her internal thoughts and emotions through her every gesture and facial expression. Unlike Williams’ original Alma, this new and updated version of Alma molds her own destiny with courage and conviction.
What happened in those 14 years between the 1948 play and its 1962 rewrite? THE ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE seemed to lie on the cusp of Williams’ change in writing style, a change that resulted in multiple later plays which unfortunately did not appeal to audiences. The slow death of his partner, Frank Murlo, from cancer also coincided with the rewrite, as did Williams’ increasing substance abuse during that painful period. When considering what led to a new interpretation of the past, it is also impossible to discount the lingering mental illness, lobotomy, and subsequent permanent institutionalization of his beloved sister Rose.
THE ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTENGALE weaves the tale of Alma, a preacher’s daughter who manages to overcome her father’s strict rules for living a lifeless life and her mother’s deteriorating mental illness to experience life to its fullest with an almost childlike ability to see the beauty around her and the possibilities inherent in living. This invigorating, breathless Alma (Ginna Carter) has loved her rather staid next-door neighbor’s son John (Andrew Dits) since childhood. When John graduates from medical school and returns home, Alma grabs the opportunity to get closer to him with both hands, despite the admonitions of her preacher father (Brad Greenquist) and the delicious Freudian machinations of John’s manipulative mother Mrs. Buchanan (Rita Obermeyer). Glorious Hill, Mississippi – where all the principals live – has never seen such a glorious resurrection of bubbling up-front and direct conversation. Even if it’s only for an hour, Alma will have her dreams come true. After all, some creatures’ whole life lasts only one hour.
Director Dana Jackson helms a moving production while keeping her eye on Williams’ goal. The skilled cast embodies the subtle motivations which surface in each of the characters while keeping the audience glued to their seats. Kis Knekt’s set design cleverly makes scene changes seem painless. Ken Booth’s light design, Christopher Moscatiello’s sound, and Christine Cover Ferro’s costumes recreate an era which resonates with the dynamics in the play. Music is often used to mark transitions between scenes and acts; however, at times this may have interrupted the flow rather than smoothed it. Overall, however, this is a play worth savoring. Tennessee Williams will forever remain one of the greatest playwrights of our day.
THE ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE runs through August 14, 2016, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 703 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA 90291. Tickets ranged from $25 to $34. For information and reservations, call 310-822-8392 or go online at https://pacificresidenttheatre.org.