Two years ago, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ producing artistic director Bill Hayes was doing his usual detailed research in preparation for staging William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Picnic.
And he came upon the intriguing fact that Inge saw a tryout performance of The Glass Menagerie by a young, brash writer with the unlikely name of Tennessee Williams. Seeing that play became the impetus for Inge to begin penning plays himself.
Hayes recognized that epiphany as the kernel of a biographical play and he would later mention it to Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal drama critic. Teachout, who had championed Dramaworks to his national readership, then brought his own play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, to the West Palm Beach company in May of 2016, and was looking for inspiration for his next stage work.
“And it was like hearing the fire bell ringing,” recalls Teachout. “I knew a lot about both men. I’m particularly interested in Inge, who I think is a greatly underrated American playwright, a real American master. I had also had it in the back of my mind that I would like to write a play that deals in a fictional way with two real people.”
The result, after a year and a half of three workshop readings and countless rewrites, is Billy and Me, a memory play that Williams narrates, that revolves around the tempestuous relationship of these two playwrights.
“It was pretty clear to me that the first act would have to do with the ‘Glass Menagerie.’ But that didn’t make a play,” says Teachout. Combing through a biography of Inge, Teachout read a fact that led to his completing the script. “It was that nobody knew where Inge was on opening night of ‘A Loss of Roses,’ the first play of his that flopped on Broadway. I realize here’s my second act,” he says. “Where is he and where’s Tennessee Williams?”
Billy and Me is described as “a work of fiction freely based on fact.” Huh?
“What’s true is true,” says Teachout enigmatically. “There is very little verbatim quotation from either of these men, except from what they’ve written.”
“The beauty of it is so little about the relationship has been documented,” notes Hayes. “We know that the men met in St. Louis when Inge was filling in as the theater critic at the ‘Star Times,’ that he interviewed Tennessee Williams and the men hit it off, so they hung out a little bit together. And two weeks later, Inge went up to Chicago to see this play and it changed his life.”
By the second act of Billy and Me, Inge is the toast of Broadway, having had four straight hit plays which all went on to become movies. Williams, on the other hand, was in a creative downward spiral marked by critical failures such as Camino Real. “I saw their lives as a pair of arcs that were not aligned the same.” says Teachout. “At every point in their lives, they’re at different stages of the arc. That created friction and it would create dramatic tension.” And perhaps sexual tension.
“Tennessee Williams is a guy who figured out fairly early on that he was homosexual and that he was good with that,” says Teachout. “William Inge was a guy who didn’t figure it out early on and had enormous trouble with it ’til the end of his life.”
“There’s been speculation that they slept together, but we don’t really know,” says Hayes.
“They never said. That’s what makes it fun, that’s what tells you you’ve got a subject that you can work with,” adds Teachout gleefully. “When there are holes in the historical records, that’s where you move in.”
Although the play purports to be Williams’ memories, “but for me, the play is about Inge,” says the playwright. “That is another thing that adds complexity in the telling. Williams is a very showy character. Inge is a very shy, introverted man and yet for me, the real dramatic arc of the play is vested in Inge, in his personality.
“You don’t have to know anything about ‘The Glass Menagerie’ to appreciate the first act. And you certainly aren’t expected to know ‘A Loss of Roses,’” says Teachout. “You don’t really have to know anything about these two guys to appreciate the play. It is a play about two famous playwrights, but it’s a play about two human beings who are trying to come to terms with themselves and with each other.”
All too often, new plays run into trouble in the second act. “What made us confident that a play would come of this was that the second act was dramatically sound. I actually wrote the last scene of the play first,” says Teachout. “We always knew that the play was going where we wanted it to go. Our biggest problems, the ones it took us the longest to work out, were in the first act. Having to do with exposition, having to do with flow, developing these two characters, how to make an introvert interesting onstage, how to keep an extrovert from constantly upstaging him.”
From the beginning of the Billy and Me project, area veteran actors Tom Wahl and Nicholas Richberg have played Inge and Williams respectively and helped shape the final script. “I’m facile at rewriting,” comments Teachout, “so I wasn’t worried about my ability to produce new material as needed. And we knew that once we got here with these really wonderful actors, they would show us what was missing.”
In part because of the commercial success of Satchmo, several artistic directors from around the nation are coming to West Palm to see Billy and Me. It seems unlikely that the play will not have subsequent productions after its world premiere here.
“If it is what I want it to be, it’s a really moving story about how all of us grapple with the problem of our destiny,” says Teachout. “What are we? What should we be? How can we become that and what happens if we don’t? I think that’s a story that’s going to resonate in the hearts of people who don’t really know who Tennessee Williams and William Inge are. It will show them a piece of themselves. And that’s what theater is for.”
BILLY AND ME. Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Friday, Dec. 8-Sunday, Dec. 31. $55. 561-514-4042.