Palm Beach Dramaworks prides itself on producing plays by great American playwrights such as Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. Yet in its 17 seasons is has never tackled a script by the lyrical Southern dramatist Tennessee Williams. Until now.
Its season has kicked off with The Night of the Iguana, the 1960 tale of a defrocked, unhinged minister and a reserved, impoverished New England painter who meet and grasp at human connection and redemption in a rundown hotel on the edge of the Mexican jungle.
Why Night of the Iguana and why now?
“This is a play that I had always had my sights on, but I don’t think we had the money and the resources and the access to casting to do it justice previously,” says producing artistic director William Hayes, who is staging the production. “We had to grow into it artistically. And I think we’ve now gotten to the point where we can tackle it.
“Much of the reason for selecting the play – particularly now – is the primary message, how to live with dignity after despair. Unlike so many Williams plays on that theme, this ends in perhaps a hopeful way. It also demonstrates the beauty of human interaction and man’s inherent need for emotional and physical connection,” says Hayes. “I think we’re now living in a society that is becoming extremely disconnected, living in the illusions that Facebook and other electronic and social networks are connecting us as human beings when it is actually disconnecting us.”
Tim Altmeyer, seen last season at Dramaworks in My Old Lady, has a couple of Williams plays on his résumé. As he sees it, “Williams gives us sections of poetry almost and there is the danger of recitation or playing poetry. Our challenge is to find the impulse that gives birth to these words, why our characters are saying these things, the value of these words for us in that moment. That challenge is also the fun of it, and it elevates the performance.”
Katie Cunningham, who plays spinster Hannah Jelkes opposite Altmeyer’s Rev. Lawrence Shannon, is also in awe of Williams’ use of language. “As actors, we tend to put Williams in the same category as Shakespeare, which means we can get kind of precious with it and overly reverent toward it. That doesn’t serve you in creating a vivid performance,” she says. “I think that’s the challenge, to not put the text on a pedestal, but to dig into it as a conversation.”
Describing his character, Altmeyer says, “This is a guy who is running as fast as he can, and he’s running on empty. He needs to find a way to be still, of resting, of coming home somehow. He keeps fighting somehow, keeping hopeful somehow, despite every reason to not be hopeful.
“I don’t have his demons – I’m not an alcoholic, I’m not addicted to sex – so I’ve got to find my own demons, then find a way to build bridges between my own demons and Shannon’s. That need for hope, for rest, for tranquility, I get it.”
“So often, Shannon is played as one note – a lot of anger,” chimes in Hayes. “But I felt it was important to know the difference between anger and frustration. He’s a man who is inherently good. He’s trying to get through to his congregation. He sees beauty in the world. He’s been there, he’s experienced it.”
In the play, set in 1940 as the world is on the verge of war, Shannon is guiding a busload of blue-nosed women tourists from a Texas Baptist college, an assignment as close to hell as Williams can envision. Jelkes is travelling with her 97-year-old grandfather, a once acclaimed poet to whom she has devoted her life. Both are as tethered to their obligations as the iguana that the Mexican youths have captured and trussed up for their amusement.
Commenting on the symbolism of the iguana, Williams told The New York Times as the play was about to open 55 years ago, “It doesn’t stand for any particular character in the play. Perhaps it stands for the human situation. I don’t think humans are such pretty creatures once we get beyond our youth. Yet it is right and true to feel for them. To want to release them from their captivity. You may not admire them, but you get to feel for them.
“It’s not a creature one would easily pity. It would take someone like Hannah’s character to look at it and think it should be let loose.”
Cunningham had no difficulty identifying with her character. “Hannah is an itinerant artist and so am I. She’s traveling with everything she owns and she’s tired. For her and her grandfather, success is making more than their expenses,” she says. “I’m a regional theater actor. I travel all over the country with a couple of bags, constantly on the road. It’s lonely and exhausting. But I also know – as Hannah does – these connections you make with people can be transformative.
“That’s what happens to her in the course of this play. A completely shattering and life-changing connection that she makes. At the end, there’s great hope for what may become of Hannah after this.”
Many of Williams’ characters are drawn from his own emotional past, but Hayes feels certain that Rev. Shannon is the closest the playwright came to putting himself onstage. “This is Tennessee Williams, particularly during this period of time. The turmoil he was going through – artistically, sexually and of his faith. The dialogue come right out of letters he’s written to other people, addressing the torment he was feeling.
“This is his most personal play.”
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Nov. 13. $66. (561) 514-4042, ext. 2.