The fall season in New York has offered a couple chances to explore the late-career canon of Tennessee Williams. On the heels of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, which closed last month, Regeneration Theatre presents a rare revival of Small Craft Warnings, a minor success at the time of its premiere that has largely fallen out of the repertory since. And if any ambitious theater companies decide to produce The Red Devil Battery Sign, This Is (An Entertainment), or A House Not Meant to Stand, I promise I’ll be first in line to buy a ticket.
But to the matter at hand: Small Craft Warnings, on stage at 13th Street Repertory Company under the direction of Barnaby Edwards and Marcus Gualberto, has not “survive[d] better than some of the much touted products of [Williams’s] salad years,” as Clive Barnes predicted in his New York Times review of the original production. But the play, and this staging, allows an audience to consider a major playwright working to adapt the overarching themes of his career to new forms. Nearly fifty years after its premiere, its frank discussion of female sexuality and gay liberation seem groundbreaking for its time, especially for a play pitched to mainstream audiences.
Williams abandons the South for a dockside bar in California, described by its proprietor, Monk (the excellent Robert Maisonett), as “a place of refuge for vulnerable human refuse.” Kerielle Sollecito’s dingy, claustrophobic set, duskily lit by Allison Hohman, matches the desperation of the dive’s clientele. The play shares similarities with works like The Iceman Cometh and The Time of Your Life, barroom dramas where the desolate and forlorn come together to simultaneously drink away their despairs and wallow in them.
Small Craft Warnings emerges as a series of portraits, and Williams excels in these finely crafted miniatures – several of which contain elements drawn from his own life. Doc, a once-prominent physician gone to seed from booze and benzos, is close to a stand-in for the author, whose addictions overshadowed past success in his final years. (Williams died in 1983, a decade after Small Craft Warnings premiered). George A. Morafetis does affecting work in the role, presenting a man who cannot overcome his demons and dependency, despite a strong desire to be of service to his community.
Williams also considers queer men of the era through Quentin (Jason Pintar), a flamboyant Hollywood screenwriter who comes to the bar with Bobby (Christian Musto), a reluctant hustler. The characterization of Quentin – flashy and preening, but with a visible undercurrent of seedy self-loathing – balances a sense of passion and danger surely felt by those who chose to live openly in that time. Pintar channels many of Williams’s familiar mannerisms, and while no costume designer is credited, his outfit of sheer sport coat and oversized ascot is spot-on. Musto gives a moving performance as a runaway whose cross-country journey seems like an attempt to escape his own undesirable urges.
If the play has a central figure, it’s Leona (Nicole Greevy), a trailer park beautician who wanders into the bar to drink away memories of her gay brother on the anniversary of his death. A spiritual cousin to several Williams’s female characters, Leona combines the nervous energy of Blanche DuBois or Alma Winemiller, the steely will and aggression of Violet Venable, the unrestrained anger of Bessie in The Rose Tattoo, and more. Awash in nostalgia and cheap bourbon, she looks for comfort but finds only grim reality.
Greevy manages some poignant moments, particularly in a long monologue describing her brother’s angelic physical beauty. (For sheer musicality of language and poetic imagery, this speech can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of Williams’s writing). But she doesn’t quite nail Leona’s drunken abandon, nor does she pull herself together by the play’s end when her dark night of the soul gives way to the hard light of morning. Directors Edwards and Gualberto don’t always seem sure of how to integrate Leona’s central story into the drama’s more fragmentary structure.
It’s a shame, because Leona represents Williams’s sympathetic interest in the emotional lives of women. Though it would be disingenuous to say she self-actualizes by her final exit, the character certainly grows in strength, confidence, and resolve as the play progresses. Jenne Vath nicely conveys a variation on this theme in her performance as Violet, a prostitute whose work seems rooted just as much in her enjoyment of sex as her need for survival.
Regeneration’s production doesn’t get everything quite right – the hair-trigger turns in and out of melodrama aren’t always apparent and some of the more intricate ensemble scenes come across as under-rehearsed. Even so, the opportunity to see this play should appeal to completists and the curious alike.