Tennessee's Last Waltz

Two actors, a brother and sister, linger in the backstage area of a theater in a strange, unnamed country. There's junky furniture, a round table with a painted rose at its center, a trunk covered with labels and a tall statue that could represent anything, godly or human, malevolent or benign. It seems everyone has deserted this place except for the siblings and an unseen audience. Nonetheless, the actors move the furnishings around so that one side of the stage represents a living room and prepare to perform The Two-Character Play -- which happens to be about a sister and brother named, like the actors, Clare and Felice, who are slowly falling to pieces in their family home in America's deep and sunny South. The place is surrounded by preternaturally tall sunflowers, and these represent both entrapment and a kind of salvation. The phone is cut off. Clare and Felice are running out of everything, including food. They make desperate but futile attempts to go out to the market and beg for credit, to call out to their neighbors for help. They fear that they either are, or are going, mad. We learn that their parents died in this house, their father shooting their mother before killing himself. Felice knows where the revolver is hidden. It may represent the only release from their dim and rapidly narrowing existence.

The Two-Character Play is not Tennessee Williams at his best. It's a kind of long-drawn-out expiring sigh. The characters' passions are huge, but so is their despair -- so huge that it preempts action and mutes expression. The playwright spent years writing and rewriting this play. It was first staged in London in 1969, and a new version called Out Cry was presented on Broadway six years later. On both occasions, the reviews were negative.

Williams galvanized American theater in the '40s and '50s with such plays as The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. His temperament was uniquely in tune with the times; a generation of Method-trained actors -- Marlon Brando, Kim Stanley, Montgomery Clift, Karl Malden, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward -- stood ready to inhabit his rebellious, larger-than-life characters; society's repressive homophobia caused immense suffering, but also a great deal of creativity. The stifled passion that lay beneath Williams's work, the melancholy, the characters' sense of being perpetual outsiders and the constant, hovering threat of violence were entirely comprehensible to his audiences. But by the end of the '60s, Williams's star was falling.

Two-Character Play is heavy with symbolism -- the strange statue, repeated comments about what's natural and what's unnatural, the rose in the center of the table that seems to give off heat. Brother and sister waft about the stage saying enigmatic and unhappy things. There are moments when the script feels almost like a parody of Tennessee Williams.

And yet this is his work, and if his artistic genius was in decline when he wrote it -- sacrificed to years of sorrow, alcoholism, jealousy and rage -- it still remained genius. Throughout the play, you can feel the poetic mind trying to work something out, struggling to find words for some redemptive truth. There's the constant tension between outside (the deserted theater, the strange country) and inside (the familiar Southern home in which, nonetheless, unspeakable evil once erupted). Sometimes the Germinal stage itself seems like a disoriented mind in which Clare and Felice wander like lost thoughts.

Williams's own mind was haunted. His father was a violent man who may have had incestuous dealings with his sister, Rose. She was in and out of mental institutions, and eventually his mother had her lobotomized. These agonized family relationships appear again and again in Williams's work, but usually he comes at them elliptically, sideways. In Two-Character Play, he apparently tried to portray his relationship with Rose head-on. The piece has none of the action and forward momentum of his most successful plays. Clare and Felice cling together helplessly, sometimes with tenderness, sometimes with anger, always trapped.

Of the local theater groups, only Germinal Stage, which has produced much of Williams's work in the past, would think to revive The Two-Character Play rather than a flashier and more famous work. It takes a genuine love and respect for the playwright to do so. Ed Baierlein both directs and plays Felice. He is generally an actor of substance and weight, but with his hair long and white, and using just the hint of an upper-class Southern lisp, he gives Felice an insubstantial, otherworldly quality. It's a subtle, understated performance that's still full of feeling. With her thin, fluttery hands and cavernous eyes, Erica Sarzin-Borrillo matches him; her portrayal of Clare is strong and moving. The actors work well together, too, so that you believe the characters can read each others' minds. Sometimes their words overlap; at least once, they flap their hands at each other like aggravated children.

This is a very quiet play, and Baierlein's production refuses to pander or provide melodrama (I admit, I did get a little impatient with the prolonged half-darkness of the beginning). The payoff moments are small ones. Felice standing outside the house, for example, attempting to walk away, while Clare watches from a window. "Impossible without her," he says. "No, I can't leave her alone. I feel so exposed, so cold. And behind me, I feel the house. It seems to be breathing..."

It's unfortunate that the audience at Germinal on the night I attended had not the slightest compunction about making noise. One woman crinkled candy wrappers, another was loudly hacking up phlegm. Tennessee deserved better.

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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