March 4, 2012

Review: 'Hidden Tennessee' is well worth finding

By STEVE FEENEY

Maine theater companies have lately been paying some respect to Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest American playwrights, who would have turned 100 years old last year.

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REVIEW

"Hidden Tennessee" by Portland Stage Company

WHERE: 25A Forest Ave., Portland

DATE REVIEWED: March 2; continues through March 18

TICKETS: $35.-$39. (senior and student discounts available)

CONTACT: 774-0465; portlandstage.org

Freeport Factory Stage just finished a run of "The Glass Menagerie" (another production of that play will open at Monmouth this summer) and now Portland Stage is presenting a Williams anthology, "Hidden Tennessee."

Best known for his long-form plays such as "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," written during his prime years around the middle of the last century, Williams also wrote numerous one-act plays, short stories and poems.

For this production, director Sally Wood has selected three plays and one story and tied them together with various recited lines from his poetry, memoirs, stage directions and reviews of his work.

Four performers carry the load and, as seen on opening night, give us some compelling glimpses of what Williams was all about.

The show, which runs two hours with an intermission, begins on a high point -- literally, a raised set of railroad tracks upon which a young girl balances precariously. "This Property is Condemned" also reaches a fine dramatic height in its subtle narrative exposition as the girl relates her story of the family dissolution that has brought her to be living alone in a decaying building.

Williams' sensitivity to exploitation and poverty are at the center of this moving little tale. It's all handled very well by Justin Adams, as the boy who hears the touching story, and especially Sarah Lord, who gave her character just the right elements of that sweet, tragic and almost noble innocence that are at the center of many of the author's best creations.

Lord also stood out in a more comedic secondary role in the other major piece of the program, "The Field of Blue Children."

This dramatized short story was appropriately heavy with the sort of thick poetry bright youngsters often embrace as they move toward adulthood. Its story of a brief romantic encounter between a restless college girl and her slightly nerdy classmate consummates in a field populated by numerous blue lights dropped from the rafters.

Courtney Moors and Adams play the enraptured couple in this depiction of intensely passionate, if ill-fated, attraction -- another specialty of Williams.

Maureen Butler figures prominently in the other two plays of the evening. In "Steps Must Be Gentle," she plays the mother of Hart Crane (Adams), a gay poet who committed suicide. This piece is given a wonderfully otherworldly set designed by Anita Stewart, but Butler's reading seemed just a bit lacking in variation on Friday.

Butler fared much better in the awkwardly titled "The Long Stay Cut Short, or, The Unsatisfactory Supper." She was quite moving as an elderly woman trying to live out her days with unwelcoming relatives.

Adams shone here as one of Williams' familiar louts, with Moors as his slightly more sensitive spouse. Butler effectively got at the desperation of a woman forced to be with people who have no idea what she means when she says flowers are "poems of nature."

Like the greatest writers, Williams knew how to locate the poetry in his people, places and things. Good show. 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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