The Night of the Iguana may not be top-drawer Tennessee Williams, but it is receiving a first-rate rendering at Palm Beach Dramaworks, where the tale of connection and redemption at seedy Costa Verde hotel on the Mexican coast opens the company’s 17th season.
The 1961 work explores whether, in Williams’ words, “two unstable lives can set the world on fire.” In its portrait of lost souls grasping at each other in an attempt at survival, it has echoes of other earlier plays from the Williams canon, expressed with a lyricism that often borders on the surreal.
Set in 1940, as war is expanding throughout Europe, the Rev. Lawrence Shannon, a former minister driven from his pulpit and institutionalized for a nervous breakdown, has his own version of hell — a whiny gaggle of female tourists that he is guiding throughout Mexico. Against their angry protests, he checks them into a rundown inn run by randy, recently widowed Maxine Faulk (an aptly blowsy Kim Cozort Kay), with whom Shannon has a sordid past.
But the play eventually ignites with the arrival of spinster Hannah Jelkes, who has her own tenuous hold on reality. An itinerant artist, eking out a living with her portraits, she has in tow her 97-year-old grandfather Nonno (Dennis Creaghan), who is wrestling with an unfinished poem he is composing in his head.
Both bruised and battered by the hand life has cruelly dealt them, Shannon and Hannah reach out to each other on the stormy night they share at Costa Verde. Those who enjoy Williams’ way with symbolism will appreciate that the two of them are at the end of their ropes, just like the sizeable iguana that the Mexican youths have tied up in the hotel basement, for their amusement.
Tim Altmeyer (the bemused landlord in Dramaworks’s My Old Lady) gives a stellar, if fevered performance as Rev. Shannon, a very physical interpretation of the character, prowling the grounds of designer Michael Amico’s tropical hotel set, lurching from one column to the next. However much he seems to be disintegrating before our eyes, that does not prevent Altmeyer from spouting great florid, philosophical Williams speeches. As Hannah, Katie Cunningham has the less showy role, but she expertly lets us see the inner turmoil with which she struggles.
The Night of the Iguana is an example of why Palm Beach Dramaworks has been such a success story. By tackling the more problematic works of the great American playwrights, the company challenges its actors and audiences, often with material rarely produced elsewhere.
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Nov. 13. $66. Call: 561-514-4042.