The Night of the Iguana

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Michael Menendian

At the Raven Theatre in Chicago
A review of the performance on Dec. 1, 2007

Asking what a great play is “about” brings nearly as many unique replies as there are people who hear the question. In his 1961 masterpiece The Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams offers us a play about second chances, emotional resonance, self-respect, loneliness, and moral contradictions. Or is it about exorcising demons and reconciling idealism with reality? Or is it the fact that no one is all good or all bad, but that everyone falls somewhere on the continuum between those two extremes?

The fact that it’s even possible to compile a list this long testifies to the richness of classic American theatre, which, as in Williams’ case, emerged from the continuum of real American life, “continuum” serving here as a euphemism for the harsh truth embodied in a multitude of baffling cultural incongruities that branded – and arguably still brand – American society. In a 1947 letter to Elia Kazan, Williams remarks that “nobody sees anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego”. To him, “vanity, fear, desire, competition” color how we view other people. And if he’s right, I’d say his tenet holds true not only for the characters he puts on stage but also for the audience who watches them. So, is it moot to debate what such a complex play with complex origins is formally about, inasmuch as every viewer interprets through his or her own lens?

Raven Theatre’s production of Iguana isn’t at all timid about taking a stand on these questions; in fact, one might say they drop-kicked nuance right out the stage door. Through decisive acting, the company took a risk in painting their characters from a vivid palette. Their acting was aggressive across the board, even in the gentler moments, and the result was a fiery interpretation in which the characters sizzled.

The year is 1940 and Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon is a defrocked Episcopal priest who, while shaking his fist at God, wanders the world succumbing to the dual temptations of alcohol and underage girls. In this role, Paul Dunckel gave us an anxious character whose hand-wringing swelled now and then into something almost frenzied. Still, it requires skill in no small amount to speak as fast, yet as clearly, as he did, all the while giving the voice a mild tremulousness. Coupled with believable nervous gestures, Dunckel’s rapid-fire delivery, which would ordinarily make me wince as an audience member, actually pushed the story forward by creating an undercurrent of disquietude that came to define both the unstable Shannon himself and his interaction with every other character.

As the play opens, Shannon has been reduced to leading second-rate bus tours through Mexico. To save money, he’s taken a busload of Texas women tourists to the tired and decaying Costa Verde hotel, where he hopes to find refuge in his friendship with the recently-widowed owner, Maxine Faulk. Right on his heels are not only the angry prigs, but also the psychological demons that Shannon calls his “spooks”. And directly behind the spooks comes an accusation of statutory rape involving a certain flirtatious nymph under the dowagers’ protection.

From that moment to the end of the play, Dunckel’s bellowing and emotional oscillations allowed JoAnn Montemurro to bring out the ambiguity in Maxine’s character by creating a contrast for her cooler head. Furthermore, Menendian was smart to leave the German vacationers in this production (sometimes they’re written out). Their bombast supplies the context for Maxine’s moral equivocation, while at the same time highlighting the other characters’ isolation from the world, both geographical and emotional. Though she seems amoral or dissolute, is she really? Or is she just skilled at striking practical compromises with her own conscience to keep her hotel out of bankruptcy? On these questions, Montemurro’s Maxine was realistically dichotomous, though her boorishness and vulgarity were right at the fore, as they should be. In fact, the actress deserves congratulations for fearlessly releasing Maxine’s inner slob.

Eventually, Hannah Jelkes, a peripatetic painter and spinster, appears at the hotel with her wheelchair-bound grandfather, a nonagenarian poet. The two are penniless, and Hannah persuades Maxine to let them stay, a decision that completes the triangle of central characters. But the shared loneliness of Hannah and Shannon quickly closes the distance between them, even as Maxine jealously tries to keep the two apart.

The difference between Montemurro and Kristin Williams Smith, who played Hannah, was dramatic in every way -- body type, bearing, and voice. Smith often spoke, however, at a startling speed and in a quasi-monotone that seemed inapt for the gentility of her character. Nevertheless, she sometimes restrained her delivery to match the calmness of the dialogue, leading me to wonder whether Smith interpreted Hannah as a woman who has two distinct sides: stubbornness and sensitivity, perhaps. After all, Hannah has a survivor’s hard resolve that doesn’t always favor the desires of her heart. If such is the case, then her second-act exchanges with Shannon merged those two sides into precisely the sweet frankness he needs on the darkest night of his life; it’s during these moments that Smith infused warmth into the dialogue and took the edge off the stoicism in Hannah’s manner.

As for the other cast members, I have to praise Maxine’s cabana boys, played by Esteban Andres Cruz and Jason Lorenzo, for their charming stage presence. They filled their roles with cheerfulness, easiness, and insouciance. So natural were they, in fact, that at times I felt like just another guest at the hotel.

Ultimately, Hannah’s wisdom, her grandfather’s verse, and Maxine’s companionship bring Shannon back from the edge of madness, freeing him from the prison of his compulsions and disillusionment. The titular symbolism of the iguana tethered under the porch is trite, but even so it’s an elegant metaphor for the interdependency of all three corners of the triangle.