Comic Salve

During the intermission of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, I overheard some people talking in the lobby. They were trying to fit the play's characters into the familiar Tennessee Williams oeuvre. Dorothea was like the self-deluded, fragile, alcoholic Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, they agreed. But who in the Williams universe did vulgar Bodey resemble? She surely wasn't Stella. And what about the so-genteel Helena, and the despairing Miss Gluck? A Lovely Sunday contains all the well-known Williams motifs -- the allusions to a universal and existential loneliness, the sense that the characters are trapped in their separate skins -- but though these strains add a familiar resonance, the characters haven't stepped from the pages of Streetcar, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Orpheus Descending. Instead, they're broadly drawn comic originals, and they're brought to pitch-perfect life by four of the Denver Center Theatre Company's best actresses under the direction of Laird Williamson.

The play was written in 1978, toward the end of Williams's life, but it is set in the Depression, when single women had few career choices and lived in constant fear of destitution. Williams was still examining the issues of class that had preoccupied him thirty years earlier in Streetcar -- the presumed vitality of the working class, the increasing irrelevance of educated, upper-class women -- but here his entire approach is different. The mist has faded from his eyes; the fierce romanticism that made icons of poor limping Laura and fading Southern belle Blanche is gone. The working stiff is no longer represented by gorgeous, muscled Stanley Kowalski, but by an off-stage character called Buddy, a fat German who likes sausages and beer, and by Buddy's equally zaftig sister, Bodey, who bustles about the apartment she shares with schoolteacher Dorothea, frying chicken, plotting to bring Buddy and Dorothea together, and occasionally getting spattered by hot grease. And there's another basic difference. Stanley was seductive, but he was also a vicious destroyer. Buddy and Bodey are good-hearted; they represent life, maybe even salvation. True, it's a sad, limited kind of salvation, but salvation is nothing to sneer at, particularly during a depression.

Williams's glory as a playwright, and also his weakness, is that his style is so distinctive and his preoccupations so consistent. I remember seeing my first Williams play, Orpheus Descending, in London, when I was in my teens. The text's heat and yearning, the violence and racism it depicted, as well as the danger to anyone who didn't fit the corrupted norm -- these scorched their way onto my consciousness and shaped my sense of what America was for years to follow.

Perhaps it was because the earlier plays made such an indelible impression that critics and audiences panned A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur in 1979. But if the public couldn't get away from Blanche and Stella, Laura and Amanda or Valentine and Lady, Williams could. He's mining different territory here, and smaller lives. He's using caricature -- slapstick, even -- and maintaining a fine balance between humor and his customary sadness. There are even diarrhea jokes.

Most wonderful, there are moments of grace in which the characters overcome their essential separateness to see and hear -- even minister to -- one another. "I don't want heartbreak for Dottie," says Bodey. "For Dottie, I want a life."

Dorothea is played by Caitlin O'Connell, and, yes, there are echoes of Blanche about her. She's a woman of a certain age, dreaming that her lover will rescue her from her unbearable present. She takes pills and she drinks too much. But she's also resilient. O'Connell brings a fascinating ambiguity to the role, seeming by turns touching or ridiculous, worn out or brightly pretty.

Kathleen M. Brady's performance as the loud, sweaty, excessive Bodey is simply terrific, whether she's wailing about the hot grease, attacking pretentious Helena, mothering poor Miss Gluck or talking about Mr. Butz, the butcher, and how before she can buy, "I gotta feel the meat." Bodey has a touch of poetry in her soul, too -- manifested in the cheap artificial flowers she uses in an attempt to hide her hearing aid.

Bodey is the supposed decorator of the apartment where she and Dorothea live -- an explosion of prettiness and kitsch, with rose-patterned wallpaper, artificial flowers, dolls, heart-shaped pillows and clashing pinks and reds. But the real creators are designers Lisa M. Orzolek and the late Andrew V. Yelusich, who included all kinds of witty little touches, including a group of cheap paper lanterns that echo the one Blanche used in a vain attempt to flatter her aging face in Streetcar. I'm sure the blue door covered with painted birds alludes to the sky-colored bird that rode the wind and never touched earth in Orpheus Descending. (Bodey's caged stuffed canary provides a contrasting image.)

Snobbish Helena, another teacher, wants Dorothea to come and live with her in a nicer apartment at a better address. This broadly drawn character is very well realized by Carol Halstead, who gives her a sniffy little nasal honk of a laugh. Robynn Rodriguez does a fine job as the dusty, demented Miss Gluck, whose constant lament "Ich bin allein" serves as a warning of what awaits women without families.

The work of Williams's last years has often been dismissed as a thin echo of his powerful early plays, yet it's clear from this lovely piece that he continued to develop as an artist, and it speaks volumes that his lost and broken characters have discovered that the only way to survive is to take care of each other. "Can you hear me clearly at last?" Dorothea asks Bodey at one point. Tennessee Williams might ask us the same thing.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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