2 by Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams’ dialogue is naturalistic inasmuch as we can feel the southern heat in its details. It’s nearly expressionist in its evocativeness. It’s quintessentially American. Williams is served very well in 2 by Tennessee Williams, a pair of Williams’ one-act plays, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Kingdom of Earth, produced by Fabco Productions at St. Luke's Theater.
Williams called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton “a Mississippi Delta Comedy”. It’s comprised mostly of a seduction scene. Jake has burned down Silva’s cotton gin so that Silva has to contract the work ginning out the cotton to him. Left alone with Jake’s wife, Flora, for the afternoon while Jake is doing the work, Silva figures out what Jake has done from things that Flora says. He retaliates by methodically seducing Flora. That evening, when Jake returns and Silva has left, Flora tells Jake that she expects Silva to return with more orders.
Kathryn Luce Garfunkel gives us marvelous work as Flora. Flora is intellectually vapid and temperamentally a child, and not a precocious child. “You’ll have to excuse me from thinking. I’m too lazy,” she says to Silva. She’s hardly puts up resistance to the seduction: “My knees are so weak. They’re like water.” But Williams’ characters are never stereotypes and Ms. Garfunkel succeeds through her own belief in the character. We accept Flora on Williams’ terms because the actress expresses her so honestly. She has a flawless, unaffected acting technique. With little to do in the last scene except give little laughs, she’s totally believable.
Jake is hardly any brighter than Flora, too dumb to know he’s being deceived, and Mike Keller does a great job portraying him. Justin Holcomb is suitably masterful as Silva.
In Kingdom of Earth (not to be confused with Williams’ full-length play of that name) Lot brings Myrtle, his wife a one day, to his farm where his brother, Chicken, lives. The river is rising and they’re going to have to go up to the roof. Lot spends the play offstage, upstairs, dying, and Chicken and Myrtle are left to themselves. Chicken convinces Myrtle to tear up her marriage license so that he’ll inherit the farm and Myrtle is happy to do so.
Williams creates a surreal personal landscape in this Mississippi Delta farmhouse. Referring to the low sound of water in flood, Chicken says “If God had a voice, it would sound like that.”
The play works through Williams’ dialogue and the formidable talents of Mike Keller, who plays Chicken,. Through solid analysis and technique he gives us a complex and sympathetic portrayal of this lonely farmer who sees in his brother’s death merely an inheritance. “Chicken is king,” he shouts at the end of the play, after Lot’s death. Judy Jerome is satisfying as Myrtle.
The actors in both plays flourish under the direction of Marilyn Fried. Her direction succeeds in being simultaneously dynamic and subtle. It never calls attention to itself; it serves the playwright.
The company does great and careful work with dialect. The southern accents are a delight to hear.
John Lant’s and Sam Figueira’s set for 27 Wagons consists almost exclusively of a swing large enough for two. The set for Kingdom of Earth, a farmhouse, is more fleshed out, and handsome.
Williams’ attitude toward the seduction of women is unfortunate. Flora tells Silva not to follow her into the house although she has clearly been enjoying the seduction. And Myrtle tells Chicken that when she was younger her employer “took me by force,” yet she developed a romantic relationship with him. For Williams, there’s a fine line between seduction and rape.
Congratulations to Fabco Productions. 2 by Tennessee Williams is a terrific show.