“I cannot write any sort of story unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire,” Tennessee Williams told Gore Vidal, who recalls this in the introduction to the collection of Williams’ short stories. “Desire” is the fitting title and the theme of an evening of six short new plays adapted, from Williams’ short stories, by playwrights including John Guare and Beth Henley.
Commissioned and performed by the Acting Company, and opening tonight at 59e59 Theater, the plays vary in their fidelity to their source, and in their effectiveness on stage. But together they offer a fascinating lesson in the art of adaptation, and serve as a welcome stimulus to become acquainted, or reacquainted, with the short stories that Williams wrote his entire life. He wrote the stories that inspired the new plays between the ages of 28 and 68. (The stories in the published collection were written between 17 and 71, the age at which he died.)
Beth Henley’s adaptation of “The Resemblance Between A Violin Case and A Coffin,” which launches the evening, tells the story of a young girl’s awakening into womanhood. When we first see her on stage, 14-year-old Roe (Juliet Brett) is up in a tree in the backyard melodramatically re-enacting the Stations of the Cross with her younger brother Tom, 11 (Mickey Theis.) She leaves playtime only in order to practice dutifully the piano to prepare for a recital. Suddenly, everything changes, after she is introduced to the young violinist with whom she will be playing a duet, Richard Miles (Brian Cross.) In a terrific touch by director Michael Wilson, she (and we) first meets the angelically handsome blond youth gracefully riding a bicycle, which is pantomimed by two other ethereal actors. In the short story that Williams wrote, the narrator (a grown-up Williams stand-in) focuses on his resentment and confusion for losing his sister as a playground companion, and also on his own awakening attraction for the violinist.
Henley shifts the focus away from the brother to the sister. Now, both share narrative duties (the sister begins the play with a line or two; the brother ends the play with a few devastating lines; the rest is dramatized.) The playwright reduces attention to the brother’s resentment and omits his attraction to the violinist. At the same time, she makes explicit the first menstruation that Williams just hints at, and expands the details of Roe’s growing desire and anxiety. The result is as heartbreaking as we’ve come to expect both from Williams and from Henley.
If it’s difficult to avoid associating the sister in “Violin Case” with Laura, one of Williams’ best-known characters, John Guare’s play makes the connection impossible to avoid. Guare chose the Williams story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” written in 1943, which is more or less the true story behind (and the outline of) Williams’ 1945 play “The Glass Menagerie.” But Guare changes it so radically that he has come up with a new title, “You Lied To Me About Centralia.” In it, Jim (Theis again), the gentleman caller from Menagerie, sits at a railroad station with his fiancée Betty (Megan Bartle) and tells her of his visit to the home of his co-worker “Shakespeare” and his family. “I loved his mother. She sells magazines over the telephone and I don’t see how anybody can resist her. She took an interest in me in a way nobody ever has. Except for you.”
Before that, though, Betty tells Jim of her own surprise visit, to her uncle, a man who is clearly gay (Uncle Clyde is living with a man who’s called Rainbow), although Betty’s attitude towards her discovery is a mix of ignorance and contempt: “I don’t have words in my vocabulary to describe what I think is going on in that house.” In this way, Guare subtly brings out Shakespeare’s attraction to Jim, by establishing a parallel: Jim’s account is equally ignorant but without the contempt: “Do you ever feel that we don’t live in the real world?” Jim asks Betty. “That some people live in the real world and know things we never know.”
Marcus Gardley’s adaptation of “Desire and the Black Masseur” is the only other play with a different title from the original story (“Desire Quenched by Touch”) and it adds an investigating detective (Derek Smith), and gives the masseur a name and a personality, but it otherwise hews fairly closely to the steamy and disturbing story of a man (John Skelley) who yearns both for touch and for self-destruction, and employs a black masseur (Yaegel T. Welch) to achieve both.
David Grimm attempts to solve the challenge of adapting “Oriflamme,” a story about a young woman dying alone, reminiscing about past almost-loves, by creating a new character, Rodney (Derek Smith) a vulgar laborer, whom Anna (Liv Rooth) meets in a public park, and with whom she has a casual, then ambiguous, then ugly encounter.
Elizabeth Egloff adapts “Tent Worms,” a later Williams story (written in 1980), about an unhappily married couple stuck in a vacation house that’s infested with persistent bugs. She updates it with references to YouTube, but she also surely acknowledges the declining situation in which Williams wrote the story with a telling metaphor; the husband Billy (Derek Smith), a writer, attempts to drive them out by burning the manuscript that he’s been working on. A hot, shirtless firefighter appears at the end as if in a lustful dream.
“Desire” ends with Rebecca Gilman’s stage version of “The Field of Blue Children” (1939), the only story from the show that Williams wrote before he became a famous playwright. It is the story of Layley (Megan Bartle), a popular and well put-together college student, a sorority sister, who has vague longings for another life, and is attracted to take a poetry course, where she’s drawn both to the poems, and the body, of the class’s best poet, named Dylan (John Skelley.) Gilman sets the story in the current day, and is way more explicit than Williams in the sexual connection between Layley and Dylan, who in the short story are called Myra and Homer. Names and styles go out of date, but Gilman picks up on Williams’ supremely relevant insight into the insurmountable barriers, sometimes externally imposed (economic class), sometimes internally constructed, that keep people from connecting to others, and to themselves.
The Acting Company at 59e59
Written by: Elizabeth Egloff, Marcus Gardley, Rebecca Gilman, David Grimm, John Guare, Beth Henley
Directed by Michael Wilson
Scenic and Projection Design by Jeff Cowie, Costume Design by David C. Woolard, Lighting Design by Russell H. Champa. Original Music/Sound Design by John Gromada.
Cast: Kristen Adele, Megan Bartle, Juliet Brett, Brian Cross, Liv Rooth, John Skelley, Derek Smith, Mickey Theis, Yaegel T. Welch
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission.
Desire is scheduled to close October 10, 2015