By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
One could argue that T. Lawrence Shannon, the defrocked Episcopal priest who is the central character of The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams, should be slovenly and out of shape. The play suggests he was quite at home with those potent potables – the rum-cocos that were the specialty of the Costa Verde Hotel, after all – and had only recently gone on the wagon so as to keep sharp as his tour guide career nose-dived.
Between frantically trying to keep the women tourists happy and the front office at Blake Tours satisfied he was doing his job, it would seem working on his physique would not be a top priority.
But Jake Wynne-Wilson, the actor portraying Shannon in the latest Tennessee Williams Theatre Company (TWTC) production, portrays the panick-stricken minister at the height of his virility, perhaps explaining why he has trouble shaking the attentions of the women in his orbit, and his own habit of indulging their attentions. It is incongruous to think that the figure about to spiral out of control and suffer a nervous breakdown would possess such machismo. Yet, if that is the worst of criticisms to be suffered by this production, then so be it.
As for the rest of this production, there are few other faults that might as easily be stated. This is a thoroughly satisfying rendition of The Night of the Iguana, one of Williams’ most-critically acclaimed, albeit infrequently performed works.
The world-weary, but pragmatic Maxine Faulk is played magnificently by Lauren Wells, last seen as Zelda Fitzgerald in the TWTC’s production of Clothes for a Summer Hotel. A lusty and recently-widowed hotelier, Faulk knows intuitively what Shannon will not recognize, that she can be his salvation and that the two of them could well be destined to be together.
But the thought of settling down does not come easy to Shannon. He is too busy trying to seduce the young female members of his Baptist college tour group and trying to stay one step ahead of their chaperone Judith Fellowes (Lizzy Bruce) and the Blake Tour operators, who have already placed him on probation for past indiscretions.
There is very little doubt Shannon can help himself. He is a tragic soul, a disgraced priest who has dalliances with underaged girls as a way of helping him cope with his own mortality. After he has seduced them, he resorts to physical abuse as a way of encouraging a breakup. Fellowes recognizes that her charge, Charlotte Goodall (Payj “PJ” Ruffins) is showing all the signs that she is Shannon’s latest conquest. Crying inconsolably and trying to see Shannon alone, Charlotte’s inexperience in dealing with rakes like Shannon is obvious to Fellowes. Lizzy Bruce’s fiery scenes as Fellowes opposite Wynne-Wilson’s spinning out of control Shannon leave little doubt she is intent on having him sacked by his tour company.
But then, two mysterious guests arrive at the Costa Verde, Hannah Jelkes (Justice Hues) and her aged grandfather Nonno (James Howard Wright). Jelkes is literally at the end of the road when she is seen pushing the wheelchair that holds Nonno up the hill on which the hotel rests. Broke, but hoping to secure rooms for the two of them in the meantime, she preys upon Faulk’s charitable nature and is granted one night’s stay.
It is this one night where Shannon suffers his final indignations and where he and Jelkes intimately share their feelings with each other. Curiously, as Shannon is trussed like a turkey in a rope hammock to prevent him from causing harm to himself, Jelkes communes with him, giving him support and encouragement to carry on with his life.
The casting of Hues in the role of Jelkes is an interesting choice and one that adds further layers to an already complex role traditionally played by cisgender women. Jelkes’s interaction with Shannon is pivotal in the play, a sexually-charged exchange in which Shannon carries out a final act of kindness for Jelkes as the new day begins.
As a formerly renowned poet, Nonno, portrayed by James Howard Wright, is seen briefly and heard composing his first poem in 20 years. At 97 years, Nonno is in failing health and he and his granddaughter are flimflamming their way across Mexico as time appears running out for them both. Wright is exceptional in this small role.
As he did often, Williams borrowed from himself when it came to this play. Just as the short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” was transformed into The Glass Menagerie, a short story titled “The Night of the Iguana” first appeared in 1948. Williams set it in the rural Puerto Barrio coast overlooking the Mexican jungle and the time was listed as the summer of 1940. At that time Europe was near the end of the first year of hostilities in World War II, but the isolationistic United States was more than a year away from Pearl Harbor and its entrance into the war.
Writing with hindsight three years after the fall of Nazi Germany, Williams depicted several minor characters – a family of vacationing Nazis, the Fahrenkopfs – as fervent fascist fools, who delight as their Führer sends warplanes to destroy England.
In this production, director Augustin Correro and his co-artistic director Nick Shackleford, have elected to update the story and set the time as specific to the end of the Trump White House on the date of January 6, 2021.
The bronzed German bodies of Karen, Keith, Kevin and Keighlieyghe Fahrenkopf that Williams described are still practically naked, but now are decidedly all Americans. We see the quartet of players Andrea Dubé, Kyle Daigrepont, Matthewe Raetz and Lauren Van Mullem all clad in patriotic attire replete with MAGA hats.
Benjamin Dougherty plays Hank, the guide on his tour, while Delphine J. portrays Jake Latta, the person designated by Blake Tours to sever relations with Shannon. Eduardo Turcios and Adriel Aviles round out the cast with dual roles of Pedro and Pancho, local boys who act as valets and bellmen for Faulk (and sometimes lovers, too) as well as mystical Mexican deities Huehuecoyotl and Tezcatilipoca. The two are depicted as tricksters, toying with the lives of the characters staying at the Costa Verde, while smirking and laughing about it. They are used to reflect on the ancient Aztec land on which the hotel rests.
Nick Shackleford’s sound designs complement the production very well and Diane K. Baas’ lighting designs are also noteworthy. Steve Schepker’s set design of the Costa Verde Hotel is also expertly rendered. Costumes are also well done by Jennifer Johnson.
Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana finishes its final shows this weekend at the Lower Depths Theater on the campus of Loyola University. All shows have been sold out.