William Shuman as Tennessee Williams
(Photo credit: Sherban Cira)
As William Shuman states in a program note for En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams, he has chosen not to impersonate the famous playwright but to “present an impressionistic portrait of this brilliant but admittedly wounded man.” Keeping this in mind, the actor does tell a compelling, humorous and poignant story. Those who have read Williams’ memoirs will not find much that is new and those who remember Williams from his television appearances or documentary footages may regret Shuman’s choice to avoid appropriating his Southern drawl. However, always credible, always in character and always entertaining, Shuman’s portrait of Williams as a conflicted artist is a biography that grows on you as his story progresses.
When Shuman appears dressed in Williams’ signature white suit and Panama hat, he announces that it is about 100 years since his birth and 30 since his death. He then takes a drink with the toast “En Avant!,” French for “Forward,” which we are informed was Williams’s lifelong motto. He then begins to set the record straight. Written and performed by Shuman, under the subtle direction of Ruis Woertendyke, the play succinctly covers the main points of the playwright’s life and career, with enough personal anecdotes and commentary to spice up the story.
We are told that although he is known as Tennessee, he was actually born in Mississippi as Thomas Lanier Williams and grew up in St. Louis. He describes his alcoholic, absent father Cornelius, his indomitable Southern Belle mother Edwina, and his fragile sister Rose. Writing from an early age, he insists that his plays are not autobiographical but that we are all influenced by our families and upbringing. Beginning with short stories for which he won a contest, Williams switches to writing plays and has Battle of Angels, one of his many works on the subject of the affliction of loneliness, accepted by the Theatre Guild.
After its disastrous Boston premiere, he flees to Provincetown, where he falls in love for the first time and experiments with playwrighting. Both agent Audrey Wood and director Margo Jones who produced a couple of his early plays figure prominently in his story. An unfulfilling job at MGM Studios in Hollywood leads to his writing The Glass Menagerie and its legendary production with Laurette Taylor, an alcoholic stage star considered up until that time past her prime. Its triumph causes Williams to learn about the “The Catastrophe of Success” which plagues him for years.
The lethargy that follows takes him to New Orleans and A Streetcar Named Desire and meeting unknown actor Marlon Brando during his next summer in Provincetown. Fame and fortune leads to a lengthy affair and meeting the love of his life, Frank Merlo, a relationship that lasted 15 years until Frank’s death in 1963. His death causes a decade long depression that results in Williams’ brother committing him to an insane asylum. He briefly touches on the years after The Night of the Iguana when his experimental plays fail to please the critics and himself. He ends with his thoughts on creative fulfillment, his homosexuality and his evaluation of his career. And then the lights fade.
Once one gets beyond Shuman’s not attempting to mimic Williams or look exactly like his photos, En Avant! is both persuasive and absorbing. As the tale begins to encompass people and plays familiar to all theatergoers, it takes on the gossipy, hypnotic spell of troubled lives of the rich and famous. The simple set of a fan back wicker chair, a desk with a typewriter and a drinks table allow for a fluid flow of the story as Shuman wanders between these three playing areas. By the end, Shuman has convinced you that you have met Williams and heard the most intimate and important details of his life.
En Avant! An Evening with Tennessee Williams (through August 24, 2013)
2013 New York International Fringe Festival
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center, Kabayitos, 2nd Floor, 107 Suffolk Street, north of Delancey Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call TicketWeb Fringe NYC at 866-468-7619 or visit http://www.FringeNYC.org
Running time: 65 minutes