Sympathy for the Devil

THEATER REVIEW: The Night of the Iguana
American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, February 19, 2017

“Has it been so long since anyone has wanted to help you?…

I know many people torture each other many times like devils, but sometimes they do see and know each other, you know, and then, if they’re decent, they do want to help each other all that they can.”

-Hannah Jelkes

The Night of the Iguana was the end of Tennessee Williams’ heyday. He’d had quite a run: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly, Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth in a span of five years. Watching the play, Williams feels like a man at the peak of his abilities; how could he know this would be his last major success? I’d speculate that, all of the characters in Iguana, he identified most with the title animal, “at the end of its rope,” waiting for either slaughter or freedom.

The iguana, at least, gets to escape. As the play ends, The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon cuts the animal’s tether—allowing himself to also open up to the possibility of redemption, some new beginning. He’s come to the end of the world after having exhausted the rest of it: the Costa Verde Hotel in Mexico, run by an old friend, Maxine Faulk. Kicked out of his church, accused of statutory rape of a sixteen-year-old companion, Shannon is at his breaking point.

Salvation—of a sort—comes in a fellow hotel guest: Hannah Jelkes, a New England spinster, somewhat older than him, travelling with her grandfather and living off their fellow travelers by selling them paintings and poems. By the end, the rest of civilization has receded into the jungle, and Hannah and Shannon are left to make sense of how they came here.

170217ARTNightIguanaPER-0692

Gretjen Helene Photography

It’s an unusual play with, I think, some of Tennessee’s most empathetic writing. By the third act, Iguana is essentially a two-hander for Hannah and Shannon, as they comfort and understand each other. Hannah’s fervent hope becomes a lightning rod for Shannon, inspiring him to—well, we don’t know. What will become of these two souls after they return to the world?

Amanda Plummer, leading an evocative A.R.T. production, is wonderful as Hannah. She’s an unexpected type for the role, more gamine than proper, though she fits Shannon’s description of “a lady, a real one and a great one” (emphasis Tennessee’s). There’s a rebelliousness to Plummer that makes sense for Hannah; she’s a born huckster, a con artist. And she’s wryly aware of how far her optimism can take her. In the presence of Shannon—a robust man—she can be tentative, a little absent-minded. Her work, her belief, is what grounds her.

Opposite her, Bill Heck is nothing if not committed; drenched in sweat, shirtless half the time, overlaid with a thick Southern accent. He’s working hard up there, muscling his way into Shannon’s corroded soul. I thought him at his best in Shannon’s quieter, more reflective scenes. He also suggests a fervent sexuality that justifies every woman’s (apparent) interest in him. Dana Delany as Maxine, the lusty hotel owner, has an easygoing charm, but she’s not ideal for the part. Delany’s performance feels small, TV-sized, rather than bold and confident, and vocally she doesn’t find much poetry in Williams’ words.

A.R.T. entrusts the poetry to James Earl Jones, in the small, largely symbolic role of Hannah’s grandfather Nonno. His illustrious voice serves Nonno well; we feel his presence just by hearing him practice bits from his long-awaited poem offstage. The beautiful stagecraft adds to the dusky magic, from the vibrant look of Derek McLane’s set to David Lander’s sensuous lighting, which pulls us in closer as night descends. The rainstorm before intermission is a startling effect.

In the hands of director Michael Wilson, we have an evocative but restless Iguana. The sensuality that stirs Williams feels lacking, and some fatigue sets during the long last act—though Heck and especially Plummer are on their game. Wilson’s production at A.R.T. gets most of the way there, though I don’t necessarily see it transferring to New York. It’s a delicate play emotionally, propelled by feeling over logic (we get it, Tennessee, the iguana is symbolic!). And there are moments at A.R.T. that bristle and tantalize: Hannah revealing her two love experiences; Nonno reciting his final poem. With Plummer and Jones onstage together, we feel the poetry and whimsy of Williams’ play most profoundly.

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