Photo by Ed Krieger
Tennessee Williams’ 1972 Small Craft Warnings is a critic’s nightmare, since it’s a bear to analyze and its nonexistent storyline denies reviewers the chance to fill up space with plot descriptions. On the other hand, Williams connoisseurs will delight in its familiar idiosyncrasies and dreamy personae (lush language and languid lushes); watching the play is a little like walking into a strange room and recognizing the furniture. And, too, Small Craft Warnings’ characters all seem to hail from other Williams dramas but appear with new names as though under some literary witness-protection program. You could even go a step further and say that many of the story’s barroom characters are Williams at various stages of the playwright’s life, so that the nearly two hours of conversation is really one long soliloquy of torment and regret.
Needless to say, Small Craft Warnings is a dangerous work to stage. Lean too far in one direction and the play becomes a loud self-parody; lean too far in another and you’re left with a turgid talkathon. This MESA Production Co. effort comes to the Evidence Room from the New Orleans Literary Festival and mostly gets things right, delivering a survivor’s self-portrait — or monument — if there ever was one.
The story is set in “a bar along the Southern California Coast” — a vague description by Williams that suggests an abstract map of the end of the world more than it does the articulated dream coast of John Steppling and other Left Coast dramatists. Monk’s Place is the kind of meeting ground where “the sound of ocean wind is heard” — but not, apparently, the sound of the ocean itself.
There’s plenty of fury, however, mostly in the middle-aged form of Leona Dawson (Maggie Eldred), a tough, love-scabbed trailer dweller raging at the dying of the light — or is it of the night? Leona roams from town to town picking up beautician jobs and men. Among the latter is a somewhat dog-eared hustler named Bill (Randy Irwin), whose loyalties drift with the tide: When he sidles up to Violet (Wendy Johnson) — a washed-out, knock-kneed young nympho about to flee town — she gives him a hand job for his attentions. (Violet’s repeated feats of manual labor are artfully concealed from our sightlines by director Stacey Arton.)
If the louche Bill is always on the verge of coming, Violet, with her raggedy suitcase sitting nearby, seems ever about to go, fed up with living above the local amusement arcade. The place comes with not one but two barroom Aristotles: the stoic owner, Monk (Don Oscar Smith), who acts as a referee and lifeboat skipper for overboard losers; and Doc (Doug Barden), who, along with Leona, forms half of the playwright’s persona in Small Craft Warnings. Doc is one of those Williams characters whom society has defrocked, disbarred or malpracticed for incompetence and indecency, a cross between The Night of the Iguana’s wayward minister, Lawrence Shannon, and William S. Burroughs’ mythic junkie, Doctor Benway. All the play’s characters, nevertheless, literally get their spotlight as the action freezes and each delivers a monologue revealing a flayed soul that time and salt air will never heal.
Into this nocturnal refuge wander Hollywood screenwriter Quentin (Travis Michael Holder) and a young pickup named Bobby (Jerry Turner) who’s bicycling through California from Iowa. The gay Quentin delivers the evening’s most cynical speech. “There’s a coarseness, a deadening coarseness, in the experience of most homosexuals,” he begins, and we suddenly realize he’s not here to talk up Stonewall.
What little transpires in the play (Leona and Bill’s quarrels, Doc’s ill-advised natal house call) quickly gets lost in all the chatter. This is not, however, a play of poetic language but of abrasive confessions, and in fact was originally titled Confessional. Along with his overtly autobiographical Vieux Carré, Small Craft Warnings is a late Williams effort to look back and make sense of his life. Both plays were given short shrift when they first appeared, and both are currently being revived in town as part of a broader re-evaluation of the playwright’s final works. Of the two, Small Craft Warnings has a better chance for full rehabilitation. It was written at a time that comfortably permitted open discussion of sexuality onstage, yet some of the play’s most beautiful moments of self-discovery arise because its author, and some of his characters, came of age in an America so unforgiving, their scars could not be erased by the new freedoms of the ’60s and ’70s.
By now, though, Small Craft Warnings’ early-1970s setting has itself become a fossil memory captured in Williams’ amber prose. It helps, when watching the play, to remember that it is unfolding not only toward the end of Williams’ life, but also during the last years in America when people of the World War II period completely dominated art, entertainment and government. Yet the refugees who appear in Monk’s safe harbor are not exactly the “greatest generation,” to use that nostalgia-marketing phrase. They are its wash-ups and fuck-ups, enjoying their booze — the last solace permitted them by the old, harsh order.
Eldred’s haggard Leona rampages about in a big knit cap and bohemian peasant top; though an exile from the repressive past, she cannot quite enjoy the freewheeling liberties of the love generation. Her situation reflects Williams’ own, for his early plays showed the way to a promising land that he himself would never feel at home in. Director Arton’s production is in tune with this paradox, and so, while David Raphel’s finely detailed set (analog-dial stereo receiver, Olympia beer poster) is not exactly the befogged, somewhat unreal locale envisioned by Williams, all the characters seem to drift in and out of an inner mist. (Or maybe it’s just the Oly.)
Eldred dominates the evening as the angry but forgiving apparition whom most of Monk’s patrons would rather ignore than listen to. She moves about the stage with a feline power that forces them to pay attention to her as she denounces Bill and grieves for her frail, artistic brother who passed away of anemia. It’s not easy for the other actors (along with some of the scenery) to avoid being eaten up by Eldred, but Smith holds his own, especially in the play’s closing moments, as the bar’s lonely shepherd of broken dreamers. Barden, who like Eldred originated his part in the New Orleans production, is another anchor in this ensemble, holding forth as the brandy-irrigated reprobate — a little too quick to grab his medicine bag and help patients who would be much better off without his ministrations.
The rest of the cast has to deal with underwritten parts. A cop (Justin Bowles) enters toward the end for a scant few lines and leaves, and John Fleck must make the most of the part of Steve, Violet’s occasional pal and a role that is long on looks and short of words. Fortunately, the design elements all snap neatly in place. Raphel’s bar, with its haunted, stuffed sailfish (an Evidence Room fixture), effortlessly summons any sandy dive along the coast (think Wilmington’s Harbor Lights or Santa Monica’s old Wind and Sea), and is moodily lit by Christopher Kuhl. Arton’s own sound design also captures the period as the stereo crackles with the Stones and Janis Joplin, although methinks the gay-unfriendly Monk may have had to borrow Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” from the playwright’s music collection.
Sometimes slow, sometimes abrupt, Small Craft Warnings is more an invitation than a caution, a chance to reflect on the quicksilver flow of life and the melancholy career of Tennessee Williams.
“Everyone needs one beautiful thing,” Leona says,
a sentiment that may well have been its author’s first
article of faith.
SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS | By TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
MESA Production Co. at the EVIDENCE ROOM, 2220 Beverly Blvd.; (213) 381-7118 | Through September 7