Tennessee Williams

Making American theater 1940s again

Reviews: Center Stage's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Artists Rep's "The Skin of Our Teeth" revive 1940s classics. Surprise: they're contemporary, too.

“Stella!” the woolly mammoth roars, and the American culture of the 1940s escapes into the 21st century by the skin of its teeth. Surprisingly, it feels right at home.

Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre opened the final shows of their current seasons over the weekend with classic pieces that bookend that strange and transformative decade of American history. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (at Artists Rep) opened on Broadway in October 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (at Center Stage) opened in December 1947, as the nation and the world were still getting used to the war’s end and trying to establish some new sort of normalcy.

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

By far the more optimistic play is the one actually created in wartime, Wilder’s audacious comic overview of humankind’s stumbling progress from its beginnings. The Skin of Our Teeth is something of a rallying cry in bleak times, a promise that even when we take five steps backward, we usually manage to make them up and take a tentative sixth step forward. A Streetcar Named Desire is steeped in the realities that settle in after the crisis has been overcome, and the sense of progress that seemed to sustain us seems suddenly to have been illusory, a curdled dream: how quickly we are wired to forget. Restless for Utopia now and embittered that it doesn’t magically appear, we make ourselves miserable. It is part of Williams’ genius that the misery he creates is so attractive.


ArtsWatch Weekly: the kindness of strangers and the skin of our teeth

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Here it is, the middle of May, and suddenly Portland’s theater season is entering its final stretch before summer, which brings its own busy theater mini-season, indoors and out. The city’s two biggest companies open shows this weekend, both high-profile American classics and both due for a fresh look.

Flickering desire: "Streetcar" at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Flickering desire: “Streetcar” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

On Friday, Portland Center Stage opens its revival of Tennessee Williams’ rough, sensual, groundbreaking A Streetcar Named Desire, which in its 1947 debut featured Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, and a smoldering hunk of muscle named Marlon Brando as Stanley. Center Stage has come up with a new Southern strategy, rethinking the play in a thoroughly multiracial milieu, with national players Kristen Adele as Stella, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley, and Diedrie Henry (a onetime regular at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as Blanche. Can we depend on the kindness of strangers?


Capturing the conscience of Tennessee Williams

Shaking the Tree's revival of 'Suddenly, Last Summer' offers a glimpse inside an outsider's mind


Rocked in the cradle by the demons of his Southern birth, Tennessee Williams was a man of his age and place. Shouldering that burden with Truman Capote and others of his era, he adopted a visceral masculinity polished with an effete sophistication. In a time when being openly homosexual was likely to have you expelled from society physically, psychologically and emotionally, Williams and his generation set a standard of untouchable worldliness, creating a gentility from which they could write, dance or paint beyond the circumvention of accepted gender identity. He was like an Orpheus, torn apart not by the Bacchanal, but rather by the inner sadness of his alienated standing.

Suddenly, a story gets told. Photo: Gary Norman

Suddenly, a story gets told. Photo: Gary Norman

While much and little has changed for gay civil rights, at the center of Williams’ work we experience the lost man. He writes in contrasts, from the humid, chthonic overgrowth of a personal garden to the bone-dry burning seaside. As his characters stand outside of temporary destinations, their mental and emotional lives pay a heavy cost for stoicism. If his characters were more honest, more open, more at liberty, we would have no play.

Shaking the Tree Theatre & Studio, which has just opened a revival of Williams’ 1958 one-act drama Suddenly, Last Summer, is an intimate playhouse, and its size and careful use of space are good matches for the savvy of the company’s audience. The actors, and director/set designer Samantha Van Der Merwe, often break the fourth wall: a character might appear off the side curtain nearing a hallway, but the direction draws you in as a participant experiencing a play. A respectful easiness in performance welcomes dabblers, lovers, and masters of the spoken word.

The set for Suddenly, Last Summer matches the contrasts within Williams’ play: an ornate rattan floral sitting room against a starch-white handmade paper forest of flowers and vines. Lights skip seamlessly off of the dead poet Sebastian’s jungle in greens and purples that match his mother’s antiquated lace dress. The sound of birds pitch against silent pauses and accentuate the dense overgrowth.

Suddenly, Last Summer is a series of confessional monologues anchored between aggressive interruptions. The members of a disingenuous Louisiana upper middle class family are set to save their reputations, bank accounts, futures, sanity, and egos after the unexpected death of the center of their universe, Sebastian Venable, a reclusive dandy who spends his life planning for vacations abroad, where he acquires and sometimes pays for one-time-a-year love. It is in his secret life and charm that his mother and later his cousin, Catherine, become entangled in his web of orchestrated hedonism.

Shaking The Tree captures the static, polarizing history and figures in Suddenly, Last Summer and presents the psychic front lines of knowing, but not saying, the truth. The opening minutes are uncomfortable and forced, capturing the foundation of presumed mores. As the play continues and more of the cast fills the stage, we become engrossed in solving the riddles we wish to be solved in real time.

Beth Thompson, as cousin Catherine Holly, mirrors the fortitude and despair of a prisoner of Bedlam. She matches, one on one, Jacklyn Maddux as Violet Venable, Sebastian’s mother. They are the two characters who display a complexity of personality, dueling off the one-sided attrition of the lesser sycophants. Steve Vanderzee is the perfect repressed and over-pressed young Southern man,  torn between apron strings and self delusion.

Van Der Merwe has done an exceptional job of assembling theatrical elements, using lighting, sound, and image to explore the inner stories and lives into which we get a glimpse. Each of us has been an outsider at one point in our lives. The great axis upon which good artistic work rests is finding the universal thread in the  current dilemma. Shaking The Tree gives Williams a new approach to see that invisible line.


Suddenly, Last Summer continues through May 2 at Shaking the Tree. Ticket and schedule information are here.


Christa McIntyre is a Pacific Northwest freelance journalist, a lover, a fighter, mother, chef of sandwiches and occasional back seat canoe paddler.


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