Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Sep 19, 2013
03:56 PM
Stage Write

The Tennessee Two-Step, Part One

The Tennessee Two-Step, Part One

PHOTO BY JASON ATKINS

Jenny Maahs and Patrick O'Hara generate sparks as Hannah and the Rev. Lawrence Shannon in MTG's 'The Night of the Iguana'

In a modest kind of way, you could argue that the 2013 theater season in Madison doubles as an impromptu Tennessee Williams revival. Between now and the end of the year, two different local companies are mounting works by the guy who gave us A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. In a little more than a month, University Theater will mount Williams's Summer and Smoke. Starting this Friday, the Madison Theatre Guild kicks off a two-week run of Williams's steamy and sensual The Night of the Iguana.  

“The thing about Tennessee Williams that sets him apart from other contemporary playwrights is his compassion,” says MTG director Betty Diamond, who cites Night as one of her favorite plays. “He feels compassion and love for people in everyday life who would drive us nuts.”

She’s talking about people like the, um, hero of the play: the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a manic horndog who’s been brought to the brink of collapse—and a bizarre career detour into south-of-the-border bus tourism—by his unbridled lusts and desires. His encounter with Hannah Jelkes, a wandering artist who happens to be staying at the dilapidated Mexican resort where Shannon seeks escape and counsel, is what gives the play its heat and import. Hannah’s also the one who delivers one of the play’s best lines, a zinger that could have been mouthed by the playwright himself: “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind, violent.”

Williams set the play in Mexico in the 1940s, but damned if the story doesn’t carry some echoes that resonate in our uber-divided, scandal-obsessed modern culture. After all, is the reprobate Rev. Shannon, with his weakness for booze and pretty young women, really that different than other men of the cloth who’ve fallen from grace in the last few decades? In today’s gossip-crazed society, Shannon’s hijacking of a bus full of female tourists would probably be the subject of tabloid covers and a CNN special hosted by Anderson Cooper.

“Insanity and rage are rampant these days, and we’re all divided by an oversimplification of reality,” notes Diamond. “It feels like the appropriate time to stage this.”  

MTG’s production has a few other cool wrinkles on tap—most notably, another turn onstage for 92-year-old Tom Haig, one of the prime movers behind the original conversion of the Esquire into a theater space back in 1996. Haig’s playing Nonno, a 97-year-old poet who also happens to be Hannah’s grandfather. The fact that he’s largely deaf and blind didn’t stop him from fronting a production of David Mamet’s Duck Variations for MTG five years ago—also directed by Diamond--and it isn’t going to stop him now.  

“I joked that he’s a little young for the role,” says Diamond.  

Friday’s opening-night show at the Bartell is already sold out, but there are plenty of tickets available for the rest of the run, which goes thorugh October 5.

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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