Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of Claude Solnik's Year Of The Iguana at Studio Theatre Long Island by William Dobbins

This review of Claude Solnik's Year Of The Iguana at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by William Dobbins and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Year Of The Iguana
Written by Claude Solnik
Directed by David Dubin
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
Reviewed 7/30/16 

Tennessee Williams was perhaps one of the best playwrights of American theatre, crafting rich poetry interwoven with heartfelt psychological studies of the human condition, thus innovating theatre and enlightening society along the way. In his autobiography, Memoirs, Mr. Williams suggested to the reader that to really know who he was, one needs to read his plays. In Year Of The Iguana, a new play currently being performed at Studio Theatre Long Island, author Claude Solnik presents a biographical portrait of Tennessee and the influences in his life story that shaped the work of this legendary writer and poet.

We are introduced to Mr. Williams during one of his brief stays at a mental health facility, later in his life after a fall from grace, enduring bouts of depression and addiction to alcohol and prescription medicine. He interacts with a nurse who recognizes him, on what it's like to be a famous writer and know Hollywood stars. However, their scenes reveal how his mind always seems to be reliving the past which in turn influences the creation of his new plays, and we begin the journey that introduces us to the elements that shaped him and his craft.

Mr. Solnik has his character of Mr. Williams narrate his own biographical play, commenting to the audience directly, then stepping into the action of his own memories - just as Tom does in Williams' initial Broadway success The Glass Menagerie. It is an effective mode of storytelling, allowing him to illustrate the early years of Tennessee's dysfunctional family life, and especially the complex and deep bond with his fragile sister Rose, who in the years that follow will undergo increasing mental instability. We see the family dynamic first mapped in The Glass Menagerie: the absent, abusive, alcoholic father; the overbearing fussbudget mother having to bear the brunt of running the household alone; the sweet, yet helpless sister, with no foreseeable prospects; and the stifled young writer, too sensitive to the conditions of those around him, overwhelmed by the dysfunction and longing for escape. The family moves repeatedly, making it difficult to establish lasting connections, and perhaps fueling Tennessee's appreciation of conversation, connection, and empathy. Rose's story is perhaps the most tragic and influential. Diagnosed schizophrenic and committed in her youth to lifelong psychological institutional care, she was the victim of early lobotomy treatment, horribly botched, leaving her a shell of the lively sister Tennessee had loved so dearly. Some things that are broken cannot be fixed. Mr. Solnik proposes that Rose was Tennessee's muse, propelling him to write prodigiously and prolifically about the fallen, tragic characters, the injustices of life, and desperate people trapped in their condition, amidst great denial, searching for hope or escape from the realities of life.

Release from a life on a leash, under the treading of those that keep you tied up in the dark, food for their impending feast - such is the metaphor of the eponymous beast in Tennessee's Night Of The Iguana, the play from which Mr. Solnik takes his title. He suggests Tennessee constructed this last worthy play while ruminating in recovery at the mental health facility he always feared would be his destiny, like his sister Rose, perhaps feeling like the ill-fated beast on his last rope. But the other scenes suggest that Tennessee kept all of his family, his lover Frank Merlo, and other significant people, walking around in his head at all times. This is the most compelling facet of Mr. Solnik's play - that Williams is, in fact, all of the people in his past with their voices coming through in his writing, in different illustrations of character and theme. We come to realize Tennessee writes prodigiously not only to follow his passion. Writing has become more than just a vocation - it is his identity. But it is revealed he also writes to maintain order over his precarious internal life and to keep his terror of ending up institutionalized like his sister Rose, at a distance. Dramatic questions are raised in the play such as: Are we shaped by nature or nurture? Are we fated to become our parents? Is literature a form of therapy in itself to keep great writers sane? Is it a form of cannibalism to pick the tragic events of our loved ones to present as literary consideration for our own profit? and Do the greatest tragedies in people's lives act as the agitating grain of sand in the shell that produces the valued pearl?

Tennessee cultivated illusion, writing Blanche's lines in A Streetcar Named Desire, "I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth." However, such a master knew how to manipulate the truth to best poetic effect, essentially making the truth more profoundly veracious in illusion. Some of the liberties taken with chronology for Mr. Solnik's play, however, do not illuminate - such as a scene taking place between Tennessee and his father long after his father had died in real life in 1957. Since a convention had already been set in the play with characters coming and going as ghostly memories, why set this biographically inaccurate scene in reality? Additionally, some scenes in the play felt simply expositional, relating to facts, or seizing the opportunity to insert a clever real-life quote from Tennessee, but lacking in character-based or circumstantial dialogue. However, the most disappointing aspect of this promising play with interesting themes was that this representation of Tennessee's life seems rather boring, which is quite contrary to the reality of his extraordinary life. A reading of some of the more insightful biographies, such as the recent Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage Of The Flesh by John Lahr, reveal the real Tennessee to be mercurial, hilarious, bitchy, insightful, sad, driven, loyal, betraying, removed, aggrandizing, cultured, salacious, romantic, and a genius - all of these complexities and conflicting elements are missing from this play. Had they been present, it would have created a more engaging, accurate, and exciting portrayal.

The enjoyable aspects of this production are in exploring the ironic poetry that simply existed in Tennessee's life: as his sister Rose has lost functions of her brain, so has Tennessee in his drug abuse; as his sister is schizophrenic, so is Tennessee in his carrying the ghosts of his past around in his head; as he becomes more famous, the more he feels he has sacrificed his sister and her tragedy at the altar of his success; the more Tennessee tries to escape into illusion, the deeper he is entrenched in the elements that haunt him and hold him down; and the more he achieves his dreams of notoriety, acceptance and literary achievement, the more he is poisoned by the trappings of that success.

The performers commit strongly to the scenes they are given, though the play would benefit from an expansion of some of the supporting roles, exploring relationships more deeply. Rosemary Kurtz provides needed solace and empathy as Tennessee's nurse, and Lisa Meckes is engaging as his overwrought mother Edwina, who is written far less overbearing here than Tennessee's plays would indicate. Edward Cress is solidly earnest as the young, yet suppressed, Mr. Williams, and later Tennessee's lover Frank Merlo, and Nicole Intravia is compelling as the delicate Rose, smiling through her pain, and later heartbreaking in her efforts at connection after Rose's lobotomy. The character of Williams' father, C.C., played by James Bradley, provides the only real menace in the family dynamic, but even his characterization is simply that of a man unable to give what his family needs from him. A household with the kind of ongoing emotional trauma outlined in Tennessee's life is not presented dramatically here and is merely touched on as biographical points.

As for the main character of Tennessee Williams and narrator of the story, Michael Harrison Carlin has been cast. Mr. Carlin had not memorized his words into the second week of performance, and carried with him his script, posing as Tennessee's unfinished manuscript throughout the entire production. Seeking almost every line with a look back down to the highlighted pages, he was still unable to convey much of the logic of the text and only hinted at a characterization. This presentation made any theatrical illusion impossible and seemed against the very notion of a performance. The audience was left to wonder what a fully realized leading performance, full of nuance and connection with the other hardworking actors onstage might look like, and his performance was clearly a disservice to the vision of the play, let alone an insult to paying audience members.

Working around this obvious impediment, David Dubin's direction was still solid and kept pace with the many episodes of Tennessee's life. Though the play traverses Williams' youth in the 1930s, his soaring success in the 1950s and 1960s, his decline from fame in the 1970s and untimely death in 1983, we see little that reflects these very different eras in either word or surroundings. The scenes, however, shift smoothly between Mr. Williams' hospital stay, and his many biographical flashbacks and ghostly visitations of people from his past, with transitions in staging and lighting. Erick Creegan's serviceable set functioned as a backdrop to Tennessee's hospital room, family home, New York apartment, and the fitting grand rattan peacock chair that was Mr. Williams' base for the play's narration.

Overall, the ideas and themes of the play are intriguing, poetic, and hold the promise of a more fully realized production. The supporting characters need more depth and internal life and the scenes need to be more conversational and revealing about the personality of Tennessee Williams instead of being thematic and biographical. Studio Theatre Long Island is wise to gamble on interesting playwrights such as Claude Solnik, and I would recommend the theatre to any adventurous audience member seeking insight along with their entertainment. The play runs through August 7, 2016. For more information and to purchase tickets ($25.00), visit www.StudioTheatreLI.com 

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