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Tennesee Williams' 'Night of the Iguana' falls on West Palm Beach

Correspondent
Christine Dolen reviews @PBDramaworks' production of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana."

For the first production of a Tennessee Williams work in his company's 17-season history, Palm Beach Dramaworks producing artistic director William Hayes chose the road less traveled.

He didn't pick the playwright's reputationmaking "The Glass Menagerie." He passed on Williams' two towering Pulitzer Prize winners, "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Those familiar titles remain the safest box-office bets if a theater is going to produce the work of that most poetic of America's great playwrights.

Instead, Hayes and company are exploring "The Night of the Iguana," a piece that is considered Williams' last major work, though he kept on writing until his death in 1983.

"Iguana," which began as a 1948 short story, premiered as a one-act at the 1959 Spoleto Festival. Then, Williams refashioned it into a full-length play, first trying it out at Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1960, then revising it through four other productions before its 1961 Broadway debut.

Set in a rundown hotel atop a steep hill on the west coast of Mexico in 1940, the play brings together a key trio of disparate characters. Maxine Faulk (Kim Cozort Kay), proprietor of the Costa Verde Hotel, has been a widow for all of two weeks. But as an old friend will soon comically observe, she hardly seems inconsolable.

As director, Hayes underscores Maxine's lustiness by staging the opening scene in a way that would have been unimaginable in 1961: Inside one of the rooms, a woman laughs, then a man emerges fully nude to avail himself of the outdoor shower. The murmuring and laughter continue. Then, as Maxine leaves the room to make her entrance with her shirt unbuttoned and her bra showing, you spy another pair of male feet at the end of the bed. Maxine, it seems, keeps her employees Pedro (Brian Varela) and Pancho (Thomas Rivera) busy, busy, busy.

Her old friend the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Tim Altmeyer) arrives, agitated and unaware that Maxine's much older husband, Fred, is no longer among the living. Working as a low-end tour guide since being locked out of his church for blasphemy and sexual misbehavior with an underaged girl, Shannon is again in a pickle: Teacher Judith Fellowes (Irene Adjan) has vowed to get him fired after catching him cavorting with her charge, 16-year-old Charlotte Goodall (Alexandra Grunberg). The not-so-good reverend has pocketed the tour-bus keys, unrealistically hoping that Miss Fellowes will cool off during the group's forced stay at the Costa Verde.

The third point of Williams' triangle is Hannah Jelkes (Katie Cunningham), a wandering artist and "spinster" (she's pushing 40!) who travels the world with her beloved 97-year-old grandfather, poet Jonathan Coffin (Dennis Creaghan), whom she calls Nonno. Though the two are dead broke, Nonno (the Italian word for "grandfather") is in the throes of creation, writing a final poem. So Hannah gets Shannon to intercede with the jealous, reluctant Maxine to let them stay the night, in order for the ailing Nonno to rest and finish his work.

"The Night of the Iguana" contains many of Williams' familiar themes, including lost innocence, genteel poverty and the tug of war between virtue and carnality. The interactions between Shannon and Hannah in the play's quieter second act (originally, its third act) contain some lovely, observant writing. But overall, the play — which features a quartet of German tourists who sing Nazi marching songs as quirky comic relief — can't be counted as one of Williams' towering achievements.

The design work on the Dramaworks production is gorgeous, from set designer Michael Amico's interpretation of the run-down Costa Verde surrounded by palms that rustle and sway in a sudden storm to the way lighting designer Paul Black underscores both steamy sensuality and Hannah's innate radiance. Brian O'Keefe's fine costumes convey period, class and circumstance, and Matt Corey's sound design subtly steeps the characters and the audience in the music and seaside sounds of Mexico.

Cunningham's beautiful, complex work as Hannah embraces the character's quiet despair, deep love for and patience with her grandfather, and finally a moment both sensual and sorrowful as a physical gesture by Shannon crystallizes a closed-off part of her life.

Cozort Kay's Southern Maxine is, as she should be, sexually voracious, ripe and needy. She's cool, even a bit cruel to Hannah because she wants Shannon, flawed as he is, for herself. One thing to work on, though: When she barks orders to Pedro and Pancho, her Spanish is nearly unintelligible.

Altmeyer's Shannon is an emotional mess from his first entrance, and the character grows more frantic and crazed throughout the play, until a screaming breakdown ends with Shannon being tied to a hammock. It's a frenetic performance that, except for Shannon's quiet moments with Hannah, is exhausting in its intensity.

Creaghan is the fragile gentleman artist as Nonno, and Adjan a real fury as Miss Fellowes, but Grunberg's Charlotte is so demandingly whiny that it's tough to imagine Shannon would have willingly spent a moment alone with her.

Even if you're a great fan of Williams' work, chances are that you've not seen numerous productions of "The Night of the Iguana." It just isn't done that often. Dramaworks is offering a production that is, like the play itself, imperfect but worth experiencing.

"The Night of the Iguana" runs through Nov. 13 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday; and 7 p.m. some Sundays. Tickets cost $66 ($10 for students). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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