It's fascinating to observe the different acting styles in the Germinal Stage production of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, and to think about the ways they work with Tennessee Williams's characters and dialogue. When Brian Landis Folkins, who plays John Buchanan, walks on stage, you're momentarily disappointed, so nondescript and ordinary does he seem. Eventually, though, you realize this actor has subsumed his personality to the role he's playing; minute by minute, the outlines of the character become clearer, and the performance gains in depth and interest. This is a masterful approach, subtle and relaxed: no fireworks, nothing showy, no intimation that Folkins is acting at all. And it's perfect for the ambiguous role of John, foil to neurotic local misfit Alma, who's besotted with him. We listen to his quiet responses to her effusions and wonder: Is he being polite? Does he genuinely care for her? Is he simply bemused? Or is there a part of him that thirsts for her passionate, yearning energy — because there are yearnings in himself that he has never acknowledged?
Now take Erica Sarzin-Borrillo as Alma's insane mother. You're aware at every moment that Sarzin-Borrillo is acting — and acting magnificently. Acting, in fact, with such fullness and clarity that she moves beyond the theatrical and artificial into a different kind of truth altogether. And then there's Gina Wencel playing Alma, a character who's a mass of stagy pretensions and affectations — her voice flute-like, her hands continually fluttering, always acting out some distorted version of Southern flirtatiousness and charm, with all this covering a sexual drive so raw that it threatens to blow the lid off conventional Glorious Hills, Mississippi. Wencel keeps us balanced on a knife edge between empathy and repulsion. We dislike her, laugh at her, pity her, worry about her, and every now and then feel the violence of her passion in our own breasts.
Alma lives with her parents, and she and her father, an Episcopal minister, do all they can to keep her crazy mother out of sight. Still, Alma is perceived as the local freak, one of those outsider figures small-town people often use as objects of mockery and to affirm their own smug cohesion. At one point, Alma's father weakly asks her to please moderate her eccentric gestures — which she could no more do than fly. Every week, she gathers together a handful of the town's other outcasts for a cultural evening. She has loved John Buchanan, her neighbor, since they were children. As the play begins, he is briefly back in town from medical school, pondering internships and trying to escape the control of his domineering mother (played with hilarious self-importance by Anne Smith Myers). He responds to Alma's desperate ploys for his attention with muted chivalry. At one point, she lures him to one of her cultural discussions and persuades him to read aloud Blake's poem that begins, "Never seek to tell thy love, love that never told can be..." — a warning she will later disregard, pouring out her love to John with an honesty both pitiable and courageous, and with poignant results.
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through May 10, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.
Director Ed Baierlein owns Tennessee Williams in this town. He has given us several of the playwright's lesser known works over the years, as well as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer. He has cast Eccentricities of a Nightingale beautifully, and also staged it with great skill, making a virtue of his theater's limitations so that, without any major changing of props or scenery, the tiny stage serves as four separate locations — and the actors maneuver these changes so deftly that the audience is never distracted for a second.
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The Eccentricities of a Nightingale features Williams's customary obsessions: the struggle for sexual expression in a conformist society; the apparent opposition of lust and romance, prudery and debauchery; the redemptive power of beauty; and the longing of human souls for transcendence. It's also startlingly funny at times; I'd forgotten how satiric Williams can be. Only the ending seems ragged and a little unsatisfactory. The production does full justice to the human truth of the play, the vividness of the characters, the humorous-horrific descents into Southern Gothic, and the pulsing, poetic and utterly original energy of Williams's language. The result is theatrical magic.