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Friday, March 7, 2008

Review- The Night of the Iguana (T. Schreiber Studio)

Reviewed by David Stallings.

If the great Twentieth Century playwrights are compared to the great modernists, O’Neil and Brecht are to Ibsen and Strindberg as Williams is to Chekhov. T. Schreiber’s current production of The Night of the Iguana is a testament of that fact. Possibly Williams’ last great play, The Night of the Iguana, is a strange yet beautiful blend of the visceral and introspective. It was a pleasure to view such a classic staple of American Drama, especially when directed by the acclaimed acting coach, Terry Schreiber.


The play follows defrocked minister Laurence Shannon (Derek Roche) in his limp escape from accusations of statutory rape while leading a tour of Texas women through Mexico. Shannon runs haphazardly into the arms of recently widowed Cabana owner, Maxine Faulk (Janet Saia). Rather than revel in grief over her recently deceased husband, Maxine immerses in carnal distractions and a possible new partnership with Shannon. Maxine’s pleasures do not seem to quell Shannon’s desperate search for peace between his conflict with God and his sexual urges. Eventually, Maxine seems very close to lulling him into a cloud of liquor and sex—her answer for mental discomfort, when the third lead appears. Shannon is suddenly matched in his abandonment by the over-structure of fellow traveler, Hannah Jelkes (Denise Fiore); a Nantucket spinster with no money struggling to care for her ninety seven year old grandfather. They are dueled in a battle of perverse introspection—the indulgent over-analyzing of motive against pure avoidance of the demons bubbling beneath the veneer of purity.

Schreiber’s understanding of the dense text is prevalent in the nuanced staging. He understands the use of stillness on stage and the effectiveness of space. Schreiber took me into the world of the early forties without making me feel like I was watching a classic. In fact, I often caught myself wishing that modern playwrights used the same restraint as Williams when broaching controversial sexual matters, just so that contemporary directors like Schreiber have the opportunity to make such sophisticated choices.

Perhaps the most profound find of the evening was actress Denise Fiore in her portrayal of Hannah Jelkes. Every phrase Ms. Fiore uttered in the three-hour play was fueled with the combustible combination of fire, innocence, and strength. I felt as if I was watching a young Geraldine Page performing. Ms. Fiore did not fall into the passive-aggressive traps of a Williams leading lady, but fiercely fought for her point of view while still being in every moment, a lady. The most moving moment of the production is when Shannon asks Hannah about her sexual experience—or rather inexperience. In a monologue in which time seemed to stop, Ms. Fiore dazzled the audience with an emotional and active story that almost begged for applause.

The role of defrocked Shannon is no light undertaking. With a deep soul, sharp intelligence, humble demeanor, and rugged sexuality, Williams created perhaps his most complicated leading man. Indeed, Shannon is Williams’ male Blanche in many aspects. We have the pleasure of watching this man dissolve on stage and grasp in vain for any life raft available. It is ultimately Shannon’s stark existential introspection that drives him to his insanity. Actor Derek Roche attacks the role as a ferocious tiger searching for a fight. His contemporary take on Shannon is alive in every moment and he literally discovers the text as he speaks. While refreshing, this take may have done the actor a disservice, as Shannon is plagued by his analysis of God verses Nature, purity verses sexual appetite—a plague that even textually indicates this would take the character more into his mind than body. Granted the eventual breakdown is physical, but without the mental journey the audience is left slightly bewildered.

As the sultry widow Maxine, actress Janet Saia is appropriately crass and beautiful. Her physical language on stage is definitely captivating. Other standouts include Peter Judd as Hannah’s invalid grandfather and Peter Aguero as the tough Jake Latta. The German family also staying at the Cabana breathes an eerie joviality onto the scene as they celebrate the burning of London. This moment gets many laughs as the delightful, sun burnt, and scantily clad family jiggles in German. But Schreiber maintains Williams’ ultimate sense of social consciousness, as Maxine must pretend to be as thrilled as they in order to get the cash at the end of the day. For this play is ultimately about the mental sacrifices we must make to be peaceful, Williams’ constant obsession with voluntary lobotomy—to be a fattened as an iguana readied for dinner. Ultimately Shannon chooses to be just that as he is lulled into the arms of liquor and Maxine by the play’s conclusion.

When first walking into the space, the audience is floored at the meticulous undertaking of set designer George Allison. The intimate thrust stage has been transformed into a Mexican Cabana that is realistic down to the finest detail of mist and a wooden floor perfectly distressed. The subtle sound design by Chris Rummel added an equally sophisticated atmosphere that never felt overdone. Karen Anne Ledger’s costumes maintained the period while still adhering to a silhouette relevant to modern audiences.

I greatly encourage audiences to witness this seldom done and beautifully produced production. Three hours seem like one, and hearing this text aloud will make you wince when watching television for weeks to come.

T. Schreiber Studio presents
Tennessee Williams’
The Night Of the Iguana
February 21-March 30, 2008
Monday-Friday @8pm
Sundays @3pm
Tickets: $20.00; /
Gloria Maddox Theatre | 151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor

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