Eccentricities of a Nightingale
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Edge New York, NY
May 10, 2008
Wow, wow and wow. And wow. Many people know "Summer and Smoke" from the movie that starred Geraldine Paige. But what most people donít know is that that play is a reworking of an earlier work, both grittier and more lyrical. Forever the tinkerer, Williams revised his original yet again for an unsuccessful Broadway run in 1976. Now it gets the production it deserves, and itís nothing short of a revelation.
The "nightingale" in the title is Alma Winemiller, a spinster-in-the-making. Her eccentricities are largely the result of a hopeless home situation and the narrowness of Southern small-town life near the turn of the last century. In short, Alma is a Tennessee Williams heroine, and one of the most beautifully drawn.
This is vintage Williams, complete with soliloquies that soar into the rhetorical heavens, Williams is the most word-obsessed of the great American playwrights, and in Alma, he has a creature who is the perfect vessel for his poetry.
Almaís downfall--this is Williams, the heroine must have a downfall--comes via the handsome, slightly louche boy next door, a brilliant young doctor (played by a very handsome Todd Gearhart). He also happens to be a mammaís boy; one scene nearly equals the incest overtones of "Suddenly Last Summer." Fortunately, we have Gearhart and Darrie Lawrence as the mother to make it believable.
The other actors are equally good, especially Larry Keith as Almaís conventional Episcopalian priest father and Nora Chester as her mother, driven insane by the memory of her sisterís infidelity and death in a horrible fire.
Since, yes, this is Williams, there are symbols and symbols within symbols. Almaís (her name means "soul") aunt ran off with a man who ran a museum of mechanical marvels, especially a woman whose mouth emitted--you got it--a nightingale. In a seduction scene, the fire in the fireplace magically relights just as the lovers rekindle their passion. The play begins and ends with fireworks.
Itís all a bit over the top and occasionally wordy. But what words! And what emoting! Williams poured out his lyrical gifts into these people, who cope in various ways with the exigencies of life in a fetid Mississippi Delta town.
As Alma, Mary Bacon (who was in "Rock and Roll" on Broadway) is amazing. She flutters and flits until she pulls herself up and hardens. You can see her thinking, feeling, crying out for help from her hopeless situation.
Revivals like this remind me once again why groups like the Actors Company are so essential. In New York where we sometimes seem only able to chase the Next Big Thing, itís so great to be reintroduced to a forgotten gem like this play. Itís like meeting an old friend for the first time.