Pook Hill’s Something Wild offers a collection of three short, one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. The plays themselves are minor in comparison to some of his other works (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie), but these three pieces will surely resonate with viewers familiar with Williams’ oeuvre and sensibility. For better or worse, the three works are unmistakably of Williams’ bleak imagination.
The first piece in Something Wild is by far the strongest. It’s called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, and tells the story of a Southern farmer named Jake (Jack Haley), who burns down the mill belonging to his rival, Silva Vicarro (Brian Gianci), in an effort to increase business. Silva then plots his revenge against Jake by seducing the latter’s wife, Flora (Samantha Steinmetz).
Ken Schatz’s sparse, unobtrusive direction allows Williams’ dialogue to come to the fore, which is a good thing, because the dialogue in this piece provides ample, dramatic tension. The three actors in this piece understand the permeable distinctions between sexual aggression and sexual playfulness. When Jake puts his hand around his wife’s throat so that she will listen carefully to his fibbed alibi, the tension, rife with implications of sexual abuse, is almost unbearable. But that tension is soon mitigated when Jake proceeds to smother Flora with kisses, which she herself seems to enjoy, or maybe she is just doing whatever she can to keep his temper in check.
Flora is, for a number of reasons, the most complex and thus intriguing character of the three. Her interactions with Jake suggest a long-suffering wife, a battered woman who uses her feminine appeal and naiveté as coping mechanisms for dealing with an abusive husband.
Her interactions with Silva are even more compelling. Is Flora resisting or welcoming Silva’s advances? It’s sometimes hard to tell. At certain moments she claims to be weak, unable to stand, on the cusp of fainting, but Flora also gets up from the swing on which she and Silva are sitting, and tries to move away from him, even if she does not end up moving very far. Flora and Silva don’t need to move much, since the dramatic tension is all in the dialogue. If anything, the two characters’ limited, stilted movements only add to this already-fraught situation.
Played by Andrus Nichols, the title character in Hello from Bertha is a dying prostitute hoping to rekindle the one meaningful relationship she has had in her life. The entire action of the play takes place in Bertha’s bedroom, which is located in a brothel. Goldie (Vivienne Leheny) runs the brothel, and she arranges for Bertha to be taken to a hospital immediately, to spend whatever few days she has left. Goldie does this partially out of sympathy, but also out of shrewd calculation; after all, she wants her business operation to remain afloat.
As she lies on her deathbed, moaning in pain from an unspecified condition, Bertha wallows in self-pity, and often resorts to outbursts and tantrums whenever Goldie provokes her. As a character, Bertha is very much in line with a tradition of female characters that have emerged from Williams’ imagination, including Blanche DuBois and Amanda Wingfield. Self-deluded and self-pitying, faded and withered, these women all cling to one final hope for happiness, but anyone in the audience can see well beforehand that their desperate hopes are hopeless from the start. For Blanche, that final hope is her belief that she might find love from Mitch, and reclaim the eroticism in her life that she lost after her husband committed suicide. For Amanda, that final hope is her undying belief that her daughter Laura, though socially awkward and physically crippled, will still find a man to marry. And of course, Bertha’s final hope for true happiness is that Charlie, a married man with whom she had an affair, might offer her the help that he casually – and perhaps unwittingly – promised her.
Of these three characters, Bertha is the most pathetic, perhaps because her dissolution takes place over the shortest period of time. And that’s one of the biggest problems with this piece in general. The psychological intricacies, the deep longings and subtle pathos of Blanche and Amanda, are nowhere to be found in Bertha, who only seems to flail about in fury as she comes to grips with her mental and physical demise. In Streetcar and The Glass Menagerie, Blanche and Amanda’s dissolutions are explored through a series of painful yet subtle events, in which both women aim high and in doing so, set themselves up for despair. Bertha, too, sets herself up for disappointments no less agonizing than those faced by Blanche and Amanda, but again, it all comes at us too quickly, and Nichols, talented though she may be, can reveal her character only through anger and nothing else.
The third and final play in the set is This Property Is Condemned, and it features just two characters, Tom (David Armanino) and Willie (Tess Frazer), both of whom are meant to be relatively young, certainly no older than 15. Willie – who is, despite her name, a girl – meets Tom on the railroad tracks while both are skipping school, and then tells him the story of her deceased elder sister Alva, who died of tuberculosis. As Willie also explains, Alva was a deeply attractive young woman who slept with many of the men who worked on the railroad; Alva’s sexual encounters are likely meant to mirror Willie’s own sexual awakening, which becomes most apparent when Tom asks Willie if she really did dance naked in front of a young gentleman, and also when Tom asks Willie to repeat the favor for him.
Armanino and Frazer both give their characters the right combination of childish innocence and mature awareness, and so the piece works for this reason alone. But much of the dialogue is stilted, and the piece itself is simply too uneventful for it to have a maximal, emotional impact. The descriptions of Alva and her lingering presence in Willie’s mind will surely elicit visceral responses from the any audience member, along with Willie’s vulnerability, both physical and psychological. Her torn dress, which leaves entirely exposed one of her shoulders, along with her disheveled doll and half-eaten banana, which she found in a trashcan; these details make Willie all the more pathetic, and all the more susceptible to male predation, and yet those of us in the audience will do whatever we can to believe that she has the will power to keep moving forward. At the beginning and at the end of the piece, Willie tries to keep her balance as she walks along a railroad track, each time trying to break her previous record of distance travelled. Even if she falls off, both Willie and the audience will want to believe that she will just keep moving forward.
Photos by Cecilia Senocak
1. Samantha Steinmetz & Jack Haley
2. Samantha Steinmetz
4. Tess Frazer
5. David Armanino & Tess Frazer
The Abingdon Theater Complex
The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre
312 West 36th Street between 8th & 9th Aves
Through October 6, Wednesday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. (no performance Sept 19).
Tickets are $18, available at 800-838-3006 or BrownPaperTickets.com.