Someday I hope to be a playwright of such stature that even my lesser works are considered worthy of production.
The incomparable Tennessee Williams, whose 106th birthday would have been last night, is certainly one such playwright. My favorite of the “great American playwrights” of the 20th century (read: “great white male American playwrights of the 20th century”), Williams’ body of work is much broader than the handful of full-length titles that get produced again and again. AstonRep has found some deep cuts for their current production of Four by Tenn, a cleverly titled show that features four lesser-known one-acts by Williams.
Sometimes it’s exciting to come across an obscure piece of work by a writer you love; other times, you wonder if perhaps some scripts were best left in obscurity. There’s a mix of both feelings in this show. The Fat Man’s Wife, in which a middle-aged woman is made an offer she shouldn’t (but feels she should) refuse, is an interesting piece, made all the more compelling by central actor Clarissa Yearman, who gives a nuanced and compelling performance as Vera, and strong direction by Dana Anderson.
At Liberty has an interesting premise; the wild but seriously ill actor Gloria feels stifled by living with her mother, while her mother has serious concerns about her daughter’s health and reputation. However, the play is missing a strong narrative arc and has no real conclusion, as though this were a work Williams started and never finished, and the choice by director Heather Branham Green to transport the play to a modern setting didn’t really make sense with the story.
Talk To Me Like The Rain… is the perhaps the strangest piece in the show, essentially two monologues delivered by the two characters on stage in turn, rich with imagery but seemingly unconnected to one another. I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow is a heart-breaking piece about two characters who desperately struggle to connect to one another, with age, fear, and a speech impediment preventing them from expressing their true feelings. The acting in this piece is superb; Christopher Meister does a fantastic job with the speech impediment, and Michelle McKenzie-Voigt combines frustration and fear with tenderness and humor, making hers one of my favorite performances of the night.
In between each play is a performance of a short monologue by one of the actors. These pieces are compelling and well-delivered, but as it’s unclear if they’re Williams’ work or someone else’s, their presence in the show is confusing.
Four by Tenn is an odd, fun little show for Tennessee Williams lovers and those curious about the lesser-known works of great artists. I wouldn’t recommend it for a Williams newbie, but it’s an entertaining evening nevertheless.
Bias warning: I once directed Dana Anderson in a fundraiser production for a children’s theatre, as well as working with her in her capacity as a summer tour actor for that company.
Location: Strawdog Theatre Company, 1802 W. Berenice in Chicago
Dates: March 26 – April 4, 2018
Tickets: Tickets are currently available at the AstonRep website.
All photos by Derek Bertelsen.