A Sad Song

"I may be eccentric," Alma Winemiller tells the man she has always loved from afar, "but not so eccentric that I don't have the ordinary human need for love." A few moments later, John Buchanan Jr., who has known Alma since they were children in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, confesses that he doesn't love her in return. The flighty young woman promptly declares that she'll be satisfied to consummate their relationship in--of all places for an Episcopal clergyman's daughter to surrender her modesty--a dingy downtown hotel. When John reminds her that said establishment is the kind that rents rooms by the hour, Alma quietly says, "Give me the hour, and I'll make a lifetime of it."
That heartfelt exchange, which occurs during the second half of Tennessee Williams's The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, accurately conveys the intensity of Alma's passion, the recurring conflict in the playwright's life and the scope of the Avenue Theater's intriguing production. At times beautifully poetic and perplexingly over- and under-wrought, director Bill Howey and his solid cast invest Williams's rewrite of his 1948 Broadway hit, Summer and Smoke, with an ardent devotion that ennobles and, in some cases, compromises the dramatist's tender lyricism.

Leading the company is the scintillating Rebecca Buric, who delivers a bravura performance as the conflicted Alma. She shifts her portrayal into premature overdrive during her first scene, but the versatile actress gradually settles into a role that is a volatile mixture of repression and desire. She also imbues her portrait with an abundance of humor and strikes a near-perfect balance between Alma's natural yearning for love (she tells us that her name means "soul" in Spanish) and her learned ability to subjugate herself to another's capricious longings.

In fact, throughout the two-and-a-half-hour drama, Buric's intelligent portrayal evokes the playwright's lifelong obsession with his parents' bizarre symbiotic relationship (his mother was a proper minister's daughter and his father a reckless philanderer). For instance, Alma's father, the Reverend Winemiller (John Ashton), criticizes her for over-dramatizing every tune she sings, chastises her for not being more of a social butterfly at church, and derides her habit of feeding the birds at the town square from a highly visible sack of crumbs. "Have you thought how it might look to people?" he bluntly asks. But Buric doesn't respond to him with unbridled fury or blithe indifference--qualities that mark many a two-dimensional portrayal of Alma (as well as such Williams femmes fatales as A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof's Maggie the Cat). Instead, Buric rebuffs each insult with an indefatigable, slightly frantic charm that bespeaks a young woman's lifelong struggle to overcome her father's incessant put-downs.

A few minutes later, Alma's mother (Julie Marie Miller) loses her tenuous grip on reality. Barely moving a muscle and staring straight ahead amid her mother's flailing, Buric exudes an edgy calm that speaks volumes about Alma's potentially inherited madness. And when, against the cheap glow of a hotel-room fireplace, Alma offers herself to John (David C. Riley) and is subsequently forced to steel herself against his unfeeling and bland remarks, Buric marvelously conveys Alma's transformation from wide-eyed innocent to jaded has-been. Gliding about the stage with a "cavalier's plume" in her hand, she moves behind the seated John and, with a sweeping gesture heavenward, forever fixes herself as a scorned woman doomed to seek solace in the arms of every wanderer who saunters through town.

But just as every Blanche needs a powerful Stanley and every Maggie must lock horns with a formidable Brick, Buric's Alma needs a commanding, sensuous and vibrant John for the play's conflicts and themes to fully resonate. However, Riley's portrait of the young doctor, though affable and good-natured, lacks the sort of magnetism, sex appeal and devil-may-care elan that would prompt Alma to defy the strictures of her upbringing and behave in a dangerously impulsive manner. When Alma visits John in the middle of the night, shrieking and trembling in a fit of hysteria, Riley reacts to her as he does throughout the play: sensibly and soberly, as if he were writing yet another prescription for an all-too-common malady. We're left wondering why Alma has fallen for this supposed hunk when he doesn't even attempt to stifle her screams with an embrace or seize the moment of her extreme vulnerability to become, in a purely physical way, the rock of her salvation. Complicating matters further, director Howey stages John and Alma's téte-à-tétes along horizontal, static lines that rarely complement the dialogue's underlying poeticism. As a result, Buric's turbulent, compelling journey toward self-discovery seems more like an isolated exercise instead of a precipitous descent brought on in large measure by Alma's interaction with John.

By contrast, Howey stages the group scenes with admirable aplomb and elicits several strong portrayals from his supporting performers. Cynthia Bow is delightful as Rosemary, a devotee of romantic poetry who, with a single withered rose held dutifully aloft, tries in vain to read her paper on William Blake during one of Alma's "culture club" meetings. As Rosemary's pundit rival, Vernon, a manuscript-clutching Michael Katt earns laughter as he glowers and sneers at his fellow arts enthusiasts, who collectively shudder at the thought that he might read them every page of his tiresome epic. Miller is hauntingly effective during Mrs. Winemiller's many mad scenes, and Ashton hits his stride during the reverend's moments of quiet desperation. Although Nancy Thomas's portrait of John's mother is appropriately pushy and overbearing, the veteran performer might want to temper her iron-fisted approach with an emotional velvet glove: Mrs. Buchanan maintains that her family is, after all, a more refined breed than Alma and her ilk. And Wes Zelio delivers a fine portrayal of the traveling salesman who, much like theatergoers who accompany Alma on her fateful odyssey, has no idea he's about to get more--and less--than he hoped for.

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, through June 5 at the Avenue Theater, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925.

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Jim Lillie

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