An Intense Exploration of Tennessee Williams at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace
It is a daunting task to write a play about Tennessee Williams. In The State of Tennessee, writer/director Steven Jackson has done an imagining of the playwright’s last days, that shows his softer, vulnerable side, romanticizing his end to give us a more sympathetic portrayal of his character.
The story is as follows: A young playwright, Steve, knocks on the Key West, FL home of Tennessee Williams, where he lives in seclusion, in the company of a disapproving maid, bottles of pills and alcohol. The young playwright, suffering from writer’s block and running from his own demons, seeks inspiration from his childhood idol. Although reluctant at first, moved by his boyish charm and helplessness, Tennessee agrees to help him. What follows are soulful and insightful reflections on writing and life in general. My favourite was, ” A play is revealing the audience to themselves.”
Putting another hero beside the iconic Tennessee Williams is brave and by doing so, Jackson has made the great playwright appear human, relatable, and endearing. Stephen is a lifeline to Tennessee’s numb, closed off, substance dependent existence and Tennessee helps the boy come out of his comfort zone, realize and stand up for who he is. Their parallel struggles help reconcile who they are and where they’re headed.
Both my friend, Shy and I agreed that the most enjoyable part of this play was the beautiful embodiment of all the playwright’s female leads, an apparition that floats gracefully in an out of the stage. Marisa King is luminous in this role, all the teasing, taunting charms of a Southern Belle, cryptic and prophesying like the spirit that she is. You’re always wondering what tricks on Tennessee’s mind she’s going to play next, what part of his psyche she’s going to reveal.
Will van der Zyl is stellar as Tennessee Williams – heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. Holm Bradwell as Steve seems at first like he was going to get a nose bleed from all this excitement, according to Shy. That may precisely be the point, for we see him go from his nervous, conflicted self to standing up for who he is to his controlling mother, played to a T by Judy Gans.
The staging is part wicker furnished living room, part cheap motel room, cozy and full of despair. The lighting is beautiful, lifting the scenes and adding to the moods, executed brilliantly by Carolyn Carr. Olivia Jon, Donovan Jackson and Kate McDonald juggle seven different roles.
The Theatre Passe Muraille backspace is small and I felt that the constant scene changes and actors going in and out of the narrow curtained doorway were a bit distracting. There are multiple themes running throughout the play and some of it is lost in the many scene shuffles.
“Remember your youth,” says the title character at the end of the play. I have often felt that youth is lost on me. If a play is revealing the audience to themselves, what I took away is to never stop experiencing and creating in the time and energy allotted to us. While the end of our days may not be pretty, at least we may have a shot at the fraction of the success and excitement Tennessee Williams had in his lifetime.
- The State Of Tennessee runs till Jun 29 at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave)
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, with an additional matinee on Saturdays at 2pm
- Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students and seniors, $15 for under 30s and Saturday Matinees are Pay What You Can
- Tickets are available at www.artsboxoffice.ca or through the box office (416) 504-7529