By ALAN SMASON
Tennessee Williams’ last play on Broadway was the terribly titled Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which lasted for 14 performances before it shut down. The play bears the explanatory subtitle “A Ghost Play” and that should have given critics and audiences alike an explanation that the historic characters being portrayed – specifically F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald and, to a lesser extent, Ernest Hemingway – are not to be taken in a literal, temporal setting, but more in a metaphysical sense.
Williams says so much in his foreword, alluding to an earlier work, Camino Real in which characters from the past interacted despite never having enjoyed even a chance encounter in real life. It is Williams’ attempt to flail open the traits of these characters without being restricted by the exigencies of time or a linear history. This license, according to the playwright, allows for “dreamlike passages of time.”
For those who know the complicated history of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his troubled wife Zelda, there is an undercurrent of great tragedy in Clothes for a Summer Hotel.
During the 1920s and 30s, they were the toast of high society, icons of The Jazz Age. Their wild parties and tempestuous relationship fueled Scott’s public persona and much of his writing was apparently purloined from Zelda’s past. Characters based on her wild child were used in a number of his popular novels including “This Side of Heaven,” “The Beautiful and the Damned.” and his tour-de-force “The Great Gatsby.”
Zelda suffered from several nervous breakdowns, perhaps due to her recognition of his plagiarism. Separated from her husband and placed into several different institutions by him, Zelda had some occasional lucid moments. During one such period, when she found herself under psychiatric care and away from her husband, she specifically accused him of stealing her diaries and other letters and basing several of his characters on her and her wild and carefree lifestyle. In fact, her husband reacted violently when she submitted the initial work for her only novel “Save Me the Waltz” to his own publisher. Scott demanded she remove several passages that dealt with their relationship because they too closely resembled what he was preparing to publish in “Tender is the Night.” To her credit, or perhaps because of his indomitable, implacable spirit, she gave in and allowed several sections of her manuscript to be deleted.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious dipsomaniac and between his alcohol-fueled tirades and Zelda’s schizophrenic outbursts, the two were textbook examples of a dysfunctional and toxic marriage. The two openly accused the other of being unfaithful and there is much evidence to believe the charges. In Zelda’s case, an infatuation on the Riviera with a French flyer, Edouard Jozan, is well-documented. To save public face and avoid a charge of adultery, Jozan later claimed he withstood any advances from her and that their relationship was strictly platonic.
The scandal of adultery didn’t stop Scott from carrying on a very public affair with Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Graham (real name Lynn Shiel), while Zelda was institutionalized. Scott wrote for Hollywood film projects and reportedly achieved sobriety, dying suddenly of a heart attack, probably triggered by his previously rampant alcoholism. Zelda was eventually placed into an Asheville, North Carolina sanitarium for several years, but perished in a horrible fire some years later, locked in her room and unable to flee the flames.
Williams takes time to build these facts through his imagined dialog between Scott and Zelda, placed against the backdrop of an imposing wrought iron gate fronting a complex guarded by mysterious veiled nuns as caretakers. There is no doubt much of the pain Williams felt in dealing with his institutionalized real life sister Rose is conveyed upon Scott as he attempts to see Zelda. While the medical doctor, intern and the sisters see to Zelda’s needs, they also attempt to keep Scott at bay during these so-called visiting hours to protect her.
Williams’ cleverness with titles like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo and The Glass Menagerie falls far short in conveying what this play is about and stems from her upbraiding Scott for wearing unseasonable dress for the North Carolina autumn. But the title notwithstanding, the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company’s production now on the boards at the Lower Depths Theater on the Loyola University campus is absolutely brilliant.
Augustin Correro’s direction of this rarely performed work is masterful. Williams’ words condemn Scott for his dealings with Zelda, prompted by the self-castigation he feels towards the abandonment of his own schizophrenic sister. Matthew Boese plays F. Scott Fitzgerald as seen by Williams, a self-possessed pretty boy, who has trouble coming to the realization that he is largely responsible for driving Zelda to madness and cannot make an emotional connection with his estranged wife. Boese does an excellent job of assuming Scott’s character, tormented as he is by his own inner demons.
In her stage debut with the company, Lauren Wells turns in a thoughtful, compelling and altogether captivating performance as Zelda. She nails down the Southern charm, inner beauty and determination Zelda felt in following her desires in life, whether attempting to become a novitiate ballerina or engaging with her aviator suitor. She is a free spirit, unwilling to yield to any outside pressure, especially that emanating from Scott.
In multiple roles as Edouard, Ernest Hemingway and an intern at the facility, Benjamin Dougherty is also quite good. His scenes with Zelda are passionate, but it is in his guise as Hemingway pitted against F. Scott Fitzgerald where he achieves his most impactful work in comparing their writing styles mano a mano.
Kyle Daigrepont plays in support as Zelda’s psychiatrist Dr. Zeller and as both Gerald Murphy and Mrs. Patrick Campbell enjoying repartee in drag with Mary Langley in her role as Sara Murphy. Langley, Dougherty and Daigrepont play the creepy, hooded nuns throughout the the two acts.
Nick Shackleford handles the ominous sound effects that add to the work, while Diane K. Baas turns in some of her best work as a lighting designer, accentuating the scenic designs of Caige Hirsch. Costumes are by Baylee Robertson with assistance by Roger Bouche.
Tennessee Williams’ Clothes for a Summer Hotel (90 minutes with no intermission) continues its run at the Lower Depths Theater on the Loyola University campus from now through Sat., September 24. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets ($20-$45 each) are available by clicking here. For more information, call 504-264-2580.