A troubled mind struggling for decency, the neighborly hand held out to a wretched man--these are the elements of Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana, for my money the most meaningful of all the great American playwright's works. Other Williams plays may be more poetic or tragic or psychologically complex--or even constructed with more grace. But Iguana, with its cool resolution, its soft acceptance of life and its compassion for all those who are lost and finally found speaks humanely to desperation, quiet and otherwise. The Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre's production is sometimes unevenly performed, but it is imaginatively staged and solidly interpreted by director Curt Pesicka.
Reverend Shannon, a defrocked minister, is physically ill and very near yet another mental breakdown when, as a tour director for a cut-rate tour company, he drags his busload of spinster schoolteachers to his friend Maxine's run-down hotel on the coast of Mexico. Shannon needs Maxine, but he doesn't know it yet. Recently widowed, Maxine needs Shannon, too. Meanwhile, the ladies in the tour group grow restive, refusing to leave the bus and demanding that Shannon return them to Acapulco. It soon emerges that Shannon has succumbed to the charms of a sixteen-year-old nymphet and may very well be prosecuted for statutory rape when he returns to the U.S.
Into this messy mix enters a truly odd couple: an attractive but sexless middle-aged woman with her ancient grandpa, whom she introduces as the oldest practicing American poet. The pair have wandered the world, making a living by reciting old poems (him) and doing quick-sketch artistry (her). Old Nonno, as Hannah calls him, is nearing the end of his life, struggling to write that one last poem. And as Nonno gets dimmer, Shannon crazier, Maxine more predatory and the ladies angrier, Hannah's wisdom reveals itself. Eventually she and Shannon are left alone to sort the reverend out, and Hannah succeeds in coaxing sanity to the surface.
Kathryn Gray makes a brash, honest Maxine--with a loud, mirthless laugh, a cynical edge and just enough earthy appeal to pull it all off, she's one of the best elements of the production. Paula M. Harvey as Hannah does convincing work, too; though she seems at first a bit young for the role, she carries it off with gentle, persuasive truth. You soon forget that she ought to be at least 45. And when she delivers that marvelous line "Nothing human disgusts me except what is unkind or cruel," you have to believe this lady has come very far and suffered very much to be able to say it with such grace.
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Frank Oden's Shannon is somewhat more problematic. He delivers all of Williams's darkly humorous lines with terrific savvy, but his nervous twitches and frantic fears are less involving than they should be. Nearly overshadowing Oden in a minor role is Chuck Muller, who was so fine in Germinal's Tango a few months back and is once again splendid as the dying poet and loving grandpa Nonno.
Designer Kevin Stephens's evocative set looks good and works well, and director Pesicka never allows the action to drag or bore us, despite the piece's considerable length. And while Williams, as always, reveals layers of selfishness and darkness within the human heart, there is also a quiet kindness in this play that the production effectively captures. Pesicka and his cast leave us with a genuine grasp of "the dark night of the soul"--the night of the iguana--in which salvation from suffering only seems a distant dream.
The Night of the Iguana, through June 29 at Margery Reed Hall, on the University of Denver campus, 893-5438.