Keyed Up

Germinal explores the great state of Tennessee.

The Tennessee Williams one-acts at Germinal Stage are tone poems, mood pieces, as much about language as they are about character and action. They are also about love, loss and despair. Couples reach for each other but are unable to connect; each play ends in stasis. Like all great writers, Williams creates a world all his own, a place of lonely people suffering passions so huge they can never be truly expressed or fulfilled. These three plays -- presented together here as Tennessee Williams in Three Keys -- represent fragments of that world. There are moments when they sound almost like practice pieces -- particularly the middle play, "Something Unspoken," which is the weakest of the group. But even if they don't represent Williams's best work, they illuminate his primary themes and express his poetic imagination.

In "Talk to Me Like the Rain," a couple -- called only The Man and The Woman -- inhabits a sleazy room on New York's Lower East Side. The Man has been sleeping off a three-day drunk, during which he wandered lost in the city and was passed around "like a dirty postcard." Waiting for his return, The Woman, one of those fragile, partially demented Williams heroines, took no nourishment but water. Now, in response to The Man's urgent request that she talk to him, she launches into a monologue in which she imagines herself living alone by the sea, growing older and older, walking on the sand every day until she becomes gray and transparent and is finally obliterated by the wind.

Despite the marked differences in their use of language, Williams is sometimes compared to Samuel Beckett. But watching Trina Magness deliver this monologue -- the way she moved forward, inventing as she went, gaining conviction moment by moment and word by word, I was reminded of Sam Shepard's long, jazz-riffy monologues, although the music here is more like a solitary flute or the thin, sad strains of Erik Satie than anything you'd hear in a nightclub.

Ed Baierlein and Lori Hansen in "I Can't Imagine 
Tomorrow."
Ed Baierlein and Lori Hansen in "I Can't Imagine Tomorrow."

When I was studying acting in my early twenties, I worked on "Talk to Me Like the Rain" for class. I was intoxicated by the play. I repeated certain lines to myself like an incantation: "Talk to me like the rain and I will listen. I will lie here and listen. I will lie here..." My partner was an intense, darkly troubled young man. At that time, the New York theater scene seemed full of such men: ambiguously sexed lost souls, the kind represented on screen by Montgomery Clift and James Dean. All of us -- writers, artists, actors -- defined anyone who succeeded in mainstream, conformist America as a sellout. Being alienated was the only honorable state, and suicide was an act of poetry and defiance. Many of Tennessee Williams's people fit this ideal. In Orpheus Descending, the protagonist, Val, describes a tiny bird with a huge wingspan that hovers above the earth, alighting only once -- to die.

At Germinal, "Rain" feels both familiar and unfamiliar. As played by Thomas Borillo, The Man -- solid, battered and middle-aged -- is a very different figure from the dark angels who populated the cultural imagination of the '60s. This makes the action less romantic and ethereal, but it adds a firmer, more realistic underpinning to a piece that might otherwise be too fey. It helps that Magness is nothing short of magnificent as The Woman. She has a melodious voice and a feeling for language, and her acting is both realistic and hypercharged. She plays the role with such feeling -- now and then emitting a burbling, demented little laugh -- that what could have been an exercise in self-pitying solipsism becomes a lament for the essential isolation of every human being on earth.

Like "Rain," "Something Unspoken" was written in 1958, when Williams's literary star was soaring, but it's a slighter piece. A ghastly Southern dowager, Cornelia Scott, is attempting to become a regent of the Daughters of the Confederacy. She has decided not to attend the annual dinner where the vote takes place, but to marshal her troops on the phone. In between anxious, irritable calls, she talks to her secretary, Grace, needling the woman to admit to something unspoken between them. At the preview I attended, the very talented Sallie Diamond hadn't fully settled into the role yet, though she was interesting to watch. Laura Booze's Grace is appropriately tight-lipped, but I'd have liked some hint about her feelings. Is she a smug little tease, an underpaid worker struggling to keep her job, or a woman fighting her own sexual urges?

"I Can't Imagine Tomorrow" is a mournful duet performed by a dying woman and her friend, a man who has trouble speaking. The two meet every night for a routine game of cards. He loves her and is terrified of losing her, but she won't admit him one inch further into her life. Williams wrote the play (sometimes titled "Dragon Country") in 1970, by which point his longtime companion Frank Merlo had died and the critics had turned against him. "Dragon Country, the country of pain, is an uninhabitable country which is inhabited, though," says the woman. "Each one crossing through that huge, barren country has his own separate track to follow across it alone. If the inhabitants, the explorers of Dragon Country, looked about them, they'd see other explorers, but in this country of endured but unendurable pain, each one is so absorbed, deafened, blinded by his own journey across it, he sees, he looks for, no one else crawling across it with him." Lori Hansen makes the character precise and acerbic, as she should be, but never inspires empathy.

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