Part of it is that her voice, lovely instrument though it is, is simply insufficient to support a career and she must make her way as a vocal teacher. More importantly, though, her eccentricities – she sings and talks to the birds she feeds in the town square – isolate her from her narrow-minded neighbors, who conclude that she is becoming deranged like her mother (Carol Randolph), who has nattered piteously since the death of her brother in a fire five years previous.
Alma seeks to escape this emotional desert by winning the love of the boy next door – a young medical student named John Buchanan (Michael Sherman). Buchanan is, well, polite, decent…but you can tell Alma’s efforts will be doomed. Indeed, soon after she drags him to a salon for her fellow misfits who meet in a Church basement ostensibly to discuss world events, Buchanan’s hypervigilent mother (Mary-Anne Sullivan) contrives to drag him back again. Alma’s subsequent hopeless attempts to somehow redeem her life by winning Buchanan’s love ignite a downward spiraling of her personality which is as fascinating, horrifying and compulsively watchable as seeing a snake devour a rabbit.
Eccentricities of a Nightingale is not a love story. It is a story about the failure of love. American Century’s efficient, effective rendering of this piece throws Williams’ dominant emotional themes of longing, alienation, and unrealized dreams into high relief, making this drama romantic and tragic both.
This play succeeds due to the power of the excellent principal cast. Any discussion of this performance begins with Ms. Bradchulis, who as Alma must walk a fine line between southern gentlewoman and neurotic, sexually repressed spinster. Bradchulis succeeds, and, I am happy to report, turns in a performance that any actor would be proud to put on her resume – notwithstanding that she was recovering from surgery experienced the week before her performance.
Sherman imbues his role as John Buchanan with an assured quiet strength. He’s also quite handsome, so it’s easy to believe that Alma is smitten with him. Sullivan is exceptional. The small details of her performance give us a clue as to how fine an actor she really is – slight movements when she is not speaking; a fluttering of the eyes; a sideways glance. This very subtle performance is a pleasure to watch.
Mick Tinder and Carol Randolph also do fine work as Alma’s parents. Tinder is stern – even occasionally overbearing – as he must be in his Puritanism, his feelings toward Alma (who he admonishes to “correct your emotions when you sing”), and the frustration he feels about his emotionally crippled wife. Yet he never lets us lose sight of Reverend Winemiller’s human face. He, and director Mazzola, recognize that Williams does not write cartoons.
As for Randolph, she undertakes the hard task of making a difficult woman sympathetic. She succeeds. Her Mrs. Winemiller could have been comic or tragic or horrifying; Randolph assures that she is all of these, and none.
The technical elements are cohesive (Ann Fedorcha handles the lighting; Matt Otto the sound, and the sets are by Elizabeth McFadden). In particular the set contains a beautiful bandstand which Mazzola cleverly uses for other purposes throughout the story. I thought that the lighting design could have been more creative in two 4th of July scenes, but it was otherwise very effective. I particularly liked Jennifer Tardiff’s costumes. Mary Milburn brings a lovely, wistful touch to her rendition of some moody and sentimental original music by Mariano Vales.
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Stephen Scott Mazzola
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by guest reviewer Gary Lee Maker
Info: Call 703 998-4555 or consult the website.