Draw up a chair at Monk’s Place and have yourself a cold glass of Tennessee Williams. Believe me when I tell you that this is not a bar where you will want everyone to know your name. Small Craft Warnings is a story about lonely losers at a seedy seaside bar; a character study of characters whose strength of character has slipped away. Yet in the sensitive hands of Director Jay Hardee and the Washington Shakespeare Company, this story achieves an emotional power that overcomes its narrative weaknesses.
The peculiar conceit here is its you-are-there setting (for which credit Hardee and Karen J. Sugruee), in which the Clark Street Playhouse’s lobby is restaged as the bar with tables and chairs. Atmospherics are high; you’ll find it easy to believe that you are in a seventies gin mill. There is no menu, but the drama is on the house. Genial bar owner Monk (John C. Bailey) presides over it, and it features Doc (Joe Palka), a boozehound medico who has lost his license but continues to practice; Violet (Mundy Spears), a pathetic young woman who floats around like a water flower depending upon men for protection and support; and Steve (Brian Crane), a simple short-order cook who is content to get by living off the scraps of life.
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These folks may be living lives as bland as cheap vodka, but Leona (Kari Ginsburg) puts the pepper to them. She is a needy beautician with a mothering complex, trying to work up the courage to kick the studly Bill (James Finley) out of her trailer. She is also mourning the anniversary of her gay younger brother’s death by drinking too much and playing Heifetz’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade Melancholique on the jukebox. When properly lubricated, she gets into confrontations with the other characters, in particular with Quentin (Christopher Henley) and his lover Bobby (Thomas Wood).
Periodically, the dialogue stops so that one of the characters can present a monologue, nicely lit by Jason Cowperthwaite. Normally this would grow tiresome but the high language, composed in Williams’ inimitable style, redeems the device. In the best of them, Quentin, once a screenwriter with high literary goals but now a writer of pornos, decries the lack of surprise left in his life and Leona cries out to find one beautiful thing left in this harsh world.
The harshness continues. Leona catches Violet – whom she had once taken in and fed – fondling Bill and the war is on. She slaps Violet and, when Violet becomes nauseous, tells her “you’re lucky if you’re sick at your stomach because your stomach can vomit, but when you’re sick at heart, that when it’s awful, because your heart can’t vomit the memories of your lifetime.”
The fact that these characters cling together as a sort of dysfunctional family contributes to the poignancy of the work. Monk particularly values that people find his bar a refuge from the storms of life and even stay in touch with him with postcards from the road.
Jay Hardee manages to restrain most of the characters, allowing them to have a heightened presence while still being grounded in their roles. Henley, Palka and Bailey give particularly strong performances. Erin Kaufman provides a delightful kabuki charm as the Bar Spirit, floating about in a blue-green outfit and accentuating the characters’ actions and emotions. Hardee works to make the transitions as smooth as possible, even though the story jumps about from character to character. At the same time, the work has touches of magical realism that suit the poetry of Tennessee Williams in the character monologues.
Fans of Tennessee Williams will see familiar echoes of past characters and themes in Small Craft Warnings. Yet you don’t need to rely on the intellectual appeal of analyzing this rarely seen work in the Tennessee Williams canon to draw you in. This WSC production has an emotional appeal nearly as great as his more famous major works. Plus, Monk will serve you beer and wine during intermission for a fair price.
Small Craft Warnings
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Jay Hardee
Presented by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
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