Poetic realism is juxtaposed with the “fantastic” in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, which, after a tryout that was as troubled as some of the major characters portrayed in it, finally opened on Broadway in December 1961. It was favourably reviewed, ran for more than 300 performances, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play award, and was even considered by a handful of those critics to be Williams’ best play. It isn’t, but this “dramatic poem,” as he liked to call it, is certainly his most spiritual – and The Glass Menagerie not withstanding, his most personal.
Originally written as a short story inspired by a trip he made to Mexico after a painful breakup with a lover, he rewrote it many years later as a play for the Spoleto Festival, expanding it even further as a full-length Broadway contender in which he based the emotional turmoil of the central character – a self-loathing, defrocked priest, called Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon – on his own tortured state of mind.
The time is summer 1940. The setting – strikingly realised in this welcome revival by set and costume designer Rae Smith – is a small run-down hotel on the west coast of Mexico called the Costa Verde. It overlooks the beach of Puerto Barrio and commands an impressive hilltop view. The owner is the recently widowed Maxine Faulk, a take-no-prisoners broad who satisfies her copious sexual appetite by sleeping with the young Mexican lads she employs to help run the place.
Apart from a small group of Nazi tourists glorying in daily radio reports of the bombing of London, the hotel is decidedly short on visitors until the unexpected appearance of Shannon, who, barred from his Episcopalian church for fornication and heresy “in the same week,” has fetched up as a seedy tour guide for a group of Texan women crossing Mexico in a bus. He is dishevelled, unkempt, has a fever and has been accused by a canny 16-year-old in the group of statutory rape. He also happens to be an old friend of Maxine’s recently deceased husband and for the umpteenth time is on the verge of yet another breakdown. Regardless of the consequences, he has appropriated the keys to the tour bus, forcing the hapless female passengers to sweat it out, quite literally, in the scorching heat. All he wants to do is crash out in the hotel’s hammock on the front porch and drink rum kokos.
It’s at this point, with the chance arrival of a middle-aged spinster called Hannah Wilkes and her 97-year-old grandfather Nonno, that the play shifts into a more elegiac gear. Hannah, an itinerant artist who earns a meagre living painting water-color portraits at various beach resorts, provides the play with its life-giving heartbeat, while her fragile grandfather, “a minor poet with a major-league spirit,” is a calming presence amidst the ensuing emotional turmoil as he battles to complete one final poem before his demise. Williams based the old man on his own grandfather, who was also called Nonno, another reason why he regarded this as one of his most personal plays. And his most hauntingly beautiful.
Unlike some of Williams’ more celebrated hits (such as Streetcar, Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Rose Tattoo), this one eschews plot for lyricism. It has been criticised for the perfunctory, superfluous appearances of the Germans, its underwritten minor characters and the heavy-handed symbolism of the titular Iguana. Tethered to a cage and fattened up to be a culinary delicacy, it is, at Hannah’s behest, cut free at the end of the play by Shannon who, as he does so, simultaneously frees his soul from the “spook” that is stifling it.
Despite these dramatic contrivances, there’s a natural flow to the development and interaction of the play’s three protagonists. Williams understands and empathises with the ebbs and flows of their insecurities, jealousies, resentments and, each in their own way, their need to be loved, understood and indulged. The scene in the play’s second half in which Shannon is roped into the hammock as if in a strait-jacket and discusses with an attendant Hannah some of the most intimate, personal and defining moments in their maimed lives, is one of the great scenes in 20th-century American theater – right up there with the heartbreaking encounter between Laura and her gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie. This is Williams at the very peak of his powers.
When the play first opened on Broadway, I was privileged to have seen the incomparable and unforgettable Margaret Leighton play Hanna Jelkes, for which she won the Best Actress Tony Award. It remains one of the most indelible female stage performances I have ever seen. Happily, in this excellent revival by director James Macdonald, who is alert to the playwright’s every nuance and changing mood, Lia Williams is splendid in the role, investing it not only with sensitivity but with a steely survival instinct that Blanche du Bois, for example, never had.
As the blowsy Maxine, originally played by Bette Davis, whose well-documented off-stage insecurities and diva behaviour came perilously close to sabotaging the production, Anna Gunn (Skyler White on TV’s Breaking Bad) endows her with just enough vulnerability to provide what could so easily have been a stereotypical character with a vital third dimension.
Julian Glover is wonderfully dignified as the nonagenarian poet, a character so rich in prospect he deserves a play all his own. But it is Clive Owen, so very stingy with his stage appearances, who, as Shannon, deserves the loudest hosannas as Williams’ complex alter ego (except sexually). Wearing a sweat-saturated, ill-fitting, crumpled white linen suit, and with his hands nervously twitching, his face unattractively contorted by self-pity and his body deflated by uncontrolled panic attacks, he finds the humanity and the generosity at the core of this towering American playwright’s last commercial and artistic success.
Tennessee Williams went on to write 17 more plays until his untimely death in 1983. They all flopped.