Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Enormous Sighs

Stayin' close, keeping it Southern.

It would have been wrong to have eaten anything else before a Tennessee Williams play, don't you think? Sure, I knew Mama J's Kitchen would be crowded at prime dinnertime, but there was only one of me, so I figured I had a much better shot at a seat than the groups around me.

Skulking about close to the bar, I spotted a guy easing out of his stool and quickly made my move, asking if it was now free. "Have a seat," the man said graciously. "Look at you, being all aggressive or else you're just a pro at this."

Ten years in Jackson Ward, my friend, I know how to score a seat in this place. Busy as it was tonight, it was nothing like I've seen it on some occasions and despite the hostess having told me that it would be an hour and a half wait for a table, people were being seated in far less time.

Waiting for my dinner to arrive, I was entertained by the dishwasher when he brought out a rack of glasses. "Look at those glasses glistening like diamonds!" he said to me smiling. "I am so good at my job!"

The woman next to me wanted the same drink she'd had last time she was in, except she had no idea what it had been. "It was red and fruity and really delicious," was about all she could offer the bartender.

When my plate arrived, it had three pieces of fried chicken instead of two and the bartender explained it away by saying, "It's because the breast was kind of small." For the record, the breast was nothing like small, but who am I to complain about extra fried chicken?

Only problem was that three pieces plus sides put me way over my full threshold, so I didn't get a slice of cake, despite the guy near me raving about how they finally had German chocolate cake (his was already boxed up while he finished his third drink), although it was the black and white cake I had my eye on tonight.

I had to thread my way through a crowd of fifteen or so to get to the door, but I bet they were all seated before I even got to Virginia Rep a few blocks away.

Tonight I was seeing Williams' "Summer and Smoke" for the first time and walking into the theater, the audience was rewarded with just the kind of southern Gothic set you'd hope for. A massive "stone" angel fountain with water spigots dominated, with Spanish moss hanging everywhere and two smaller Victorian-looking room sets in front.

This production has great sentimental value because it is Virginia Rep's artistic director Bruce Miller's final directing job after 41 years with the company. Appropriately, the evening began with the actors talking about the formation of Barksdale Theater, which eventually became VA Rep.

It was a fabulous story: In 1953, six young NYC theater actors risked everything by buying a dilapidated old tavern (no indoor plumbing, no glass in the windows) with plans to turn it into a theater. A week later, they did a reading of "Summer and Smoke" in the basement for no one but themselves.

You could move to New Orleans and have a mysteriously colorful life like your aunt.

Out of necessity, every morning, the group, with a bar of soap in one hand and a towel in the other, would head up to Taylor's Pond to bathe. Naturally, hearing this just made me curious about the pond and I intend to find it next time I go to a play at Hanover Tavern, you can be sure.

There are women who want to love and be loved in a physical manner.

Miller had brilliantly chosen a deliberately young cast - a nod to those actors who'd come to Hanover - and while it was a tad jarring at first to see a 20-something playing the father of a 20-something, the talented Charley Raintree pulled it off.

Remembering last night and anticipating the next one...

The story of a frustrated preacher's daughter and the wild and undisciplined doctor's son who lives next door had all the usual Williams tropes: mentally unbalanced mother, the Southern belle hoping to be saved by a man, traveling salesmen, a hot Southern setting, men in white suits, all enhanced by excellent staging and nuanced acting (it's almost painful to watch Alexander Sapp's character's dissolution over the summer, so believable is his acting).

I've settled with life on the most comfortable terms.

Not knowing the story added a great deal to tonight's experience because while I never expected a Williams play to end happily, I couldn't have anticipated seeing two characters effectively change mindsets with each other, she finally craving the physical and him the spiritual.

Amen, sister. I'm dewy at the thought.

Bruce Miller picked a hell of a way to go out, effectively marrying the nostalgic - the original troupe's first reading 63 years ago - with one of Williams' under-produced but compelling plays and making sure it was done incredibly well.

Sexual repression dealt with, now I'm ready for that piece of cake.

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