Blanche and Beyond
from Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams
adapted and Directed Steve Lawson
presented by The Kennedy Center in the Terrace Theater
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackso
Richard Thomas has come a long way from playing John Boy Walton (early 1970’s) with over 40 films and countless stage productions since those early years. Although the familiar visage is recognizable as soon as he steps on the set, all flashbacks to his antics growing up in that homespun version of early Americana disappear as Thomas anchors himself firmly in the flamboyant boisterous, boozing personae of Tennessee Williamsin the limited run of Blanche and Beyond at the Kennedy Center. Told in a series of letters that Williams wrote to numerous friends, relatives, and a disgruntled fan or two, Blanche and Beyond is a fresh look at an American original.
Thomas has a comfortable and easy going manner portraying this figure who transformed American theater. Reading the letters with a vocal impersonation hinting at Williams’ familiar slight lisp, Thomas strikes a nice balance displaying the fun-loving character without lapsing into caricature, enjoying the passages with relish, and approaching each segment with energy and discovery. Accompanied only by an assortment of projected images that ranged from scenes from his travels, photos of those he was writing about or to, or Williams himself, Thomas provided a consistent and authentic portrayal throughout.
Still, it’s the writing, the letters that own the stage. Whether state-side dealing with the many aspects of theater, wrangling with family and directors, or relaxing in his beloved Rome, Williams’ wit and razor-sharp commentary spared no one. Juicy tidbits about familiar names in literature (you should hear his slice, dice and dish on Truman Capote) mixed freely with snippets about various well-muscled sexual exploits (imaged or real) at every opportunity. In addition, Williams gives us a chance to hear the back-story behind some of the most fascinating characters that have ever graced the American stage. At one point, he mentions to a friend in the most haphazard, by-the-way manner, that he was working out the details of two stories simultaneously, one about a mother and daughter and the other two sisters. Hearing his broad brushstroke depictions of these two masterworks helped to crystallize their key elements, putting a neat minimalist spin on Glass Menagerie and Streetcar Named Desire.
Another revelation that created a wave of delight in the audience involved his description of the casting. He had a clear vision of how Blanche needed to be portrayed, the vulnerability at her core, the tantalizing mix of delusion and self-aggrandizement, and after agonizing and searching with Elia Kazan, they struck gold with Jessica Tandy. Everyone was cast now except that their first choice for Stanley, John Garfield, suddenly became unavailable grinding everything to a halt. His initial descriptions of being “stuck” with a new unkept and unknown, Marlon Brando, and the subsequent letters describing Brando’s quintessential portrayal of that character, illuminated aspects of Stanley Kowalski even to Williams himself. Williams clearly enjoyed and appreciated the rip-roaring muscular portrayal of the character (as well as the actual rip-roaring muscles, themselves, of course!)
Yes, the letters were exquisite, because in the end, nothing else sounds like Williams – his cadences, imagery and style. Steve Lawson, the adaptor/ director notes that in his creative best, his version of Blanche’s last memorable line would have been-“I have always depended on the kindness of, uhm, people I don’t know very well.” Finding humor in this pitiful permutation of that infamous line requires some knowledge about Williams and the works, without which, many of the nuggets of the evening may have been lost. There was no explanatory section or analysis, barely any introductory material to situate the letters, certainly no additional theatrical passages written to interweave the letters into any dramatic flow. Apparently, the contract signed by the family’s estate which allowed Lawson to have access to the mountains of material prohibited any extraneous text or writing – the production had to be based on Williams’ words alone. That’s a noble and lofty premise assuring a blissful evening of pure Tennessee Williams for the purists at heart. The rest of humanity could probably have used and appreciated more of an ebb and flow in the theatrical evening.
Still, the time was well spent. The production provides a glimpse into the mind and world of the one and only Tennessee Williams, including a description of his dysfunctional family relationships with his mother and sister refracted so much as Laura in Glass Menagerie it’s almost scary. Tennessee Williams as portrayed by Richard Thomas is heartfelt, poignant, a treasured zinger and nicely reflected in Blanche and Beyond.
Running Time: 90 minutes
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