Tennessee Williams published several collections of short stories from 1954 to 1981, but most of us absorb his lyrical prose from the mouths of actors, not when it's lying primly on a page. Now the stalwart Acting Company has commissioned adaptations of six of his tales by accomplished playwrights. I’ve read only half of the stories, but you can assume each playlet is both equal homage to a master and playful riff on a source. As you would expect from any project drawn from Williams’ hothouse oeuvre, the pieces are rife with agonized erotic longing, trembling Southern belles and spasms of violence. And while any night of vignettes is inevitably mixed, this program is satisfying in small, intense doses.
The more effective rewrites address Williams’ dated attitudes toward people of color and women. Marcus Gardley’s Desire Quenched by Touch humanizes and individualizes the title figure in the 1948 story “Desire and the Black Masseur,” giving the nameless Negro a backstory. It’s the tale of a painfully repressed white resident of New Orleans (John Skelley) who lavishly pays a black masseur (Yaegel T. Welch) to beat him black and blue. The source is a grotesque sexual fable, and while Gardley remains faithful to the grisly finale, he also sharply sketches overlapping zones of Southern racism and homophobia. In adapting the earliest piece, “The Field of Blue Children” (1939), Rebecca Gilman updates the setting, adding sorority-girl humor and sexual frankness to a campus romance with class tensions.
John Guare’s You Lied to Me About Centralia is an earnest and touching answer to the question, “What happened to Jim the Gentleman Caller after The Glass Menagerie?” David Grimm’s witty, heartbroken Oriflamme pairs a dreamy Southern gal (Liv Rooth) with a stranger on a park bench (Derek Smith) who starts as a Mitch and ends as a Stanley. The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin, from Beth Henley, is a Southern memory play with roots in Carson McCullers, valuable mainly as a vehicle for the yearning appeal of young Juliet Brett.
Lastly, Tent Worms is drawn from a 1980 Esquire story about a wife and her husband trying to clear the titular pests from their Cape Cod summer home. The situation has been moved to present day and bittersweetly sketched by Elizabeth Egloff. A late revelation about the husband’s diseased state reveals the rather heavy metaphorical function the worms had been serving. As you can see, these stories are not subtle in their literary devices or symbolic gestures, and the plays are most interesting when the authors mitigate such flamboyant, combustible material with their own contemporary voice and vision.
Michael Wilson directs an appealing, mostly strong ensemble, and the pieces flow swiftly, offering variety – if not dramatic thrills – at every turn. Most American playwrights working today owe some debt to Williams; it’s a pleasure, and inspiring, to see six give back.