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There’s nothing like upheaval to make a people question its values, so the opening sentences of Lady Chatterley’s Lover ought to resonate with American readers as never before: “Ours is essentially a tragic age….The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins.”
Lawrence was writing of the grotesque continental convulsion that was World War I, of course, and he was both mourning and celebrating the confusions it had wrought. He had no shortage of pity for the generation it had destroyedthose gallant, carefree young people suddenly grown old or simply cut downbut he thrilled to the prospect of a populace awakened to the hollowness of its old assumptions: “We start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes,” is the observation that follows hard on that bleak initial image. A culture in shambles, he seemed to be saying, has an opportunity to reframe itself along sturdier lines; you’ve got to wonder, then, what he would make of the way an America stripped of innocence has been reassembling her tattered raiments.
That “tragic age” observation gets spoken aloud in the first seconds of Mary Machala and John Vreeke’s stage adaptation, which Vreeke has directed in a spare and elegant production for the Washington Shakespeare Company. The assembled actors voice those ruminative phrases first in turn, now in concert; parceling out the book’s omniscient-third-person narration among themselves, they set the postwar scenethe estate of a country squire abutting the miserable poverty of a Midlands coal-mining townand sketch in the biographies of Lawrence’s convention-flouting heroine, her tart sister and unconventional father, and her tradition-bound aristocrat husband in chunks of prose cut and pasted from the book’s early pages. The conceit continues throughout the evening, with characters one moment describing themselves or each other or the general way of things from an observer’s perspective, then slipping into a scene once it’s set to play out the action as though unconscious of the story’s larger shape.
It’s a tricky approach, but one that echoes the novel’s form; Lawrence offers endless lyrical storytelling but not a scrap of dialogue until well into Chapter 2, and he’ll begin a passage at an authorial remove only to slip effortlessly into a character’s thoughts and voice. And Vreeke and Machala have a strong sense of what’s playable; the script they’ve crafted is at once novelistic in its observational richness and cinematic in its efficiency. Yet it’s by no means untheatrical: The unusual structure concentrates the story’s power, demands a certain focused attention from the audience.
There are rewards, too, for that focus. Michelle Shupe gives a performance of enormous poise and no small range as Constance Chatterley; she can display a touching hesitancy in a conversation that takes her character beyond received wisdom, or seem fragile and birdlike in a moment of fear, or summon a bright, joyous confidence. A kind of calmness and sense of surety settles upon her as, having been quietly encouraged by her paralyzed husband to have an affair so they can have a child, she discovers a more liberated self in another man’s embrace.
Jim Jorgensen, as the decent but weak-spirited spouse who might have grown with her but for the war that left him in a wheelchair, lets us see the man’s gradual hollowing-outand insists that we understand it. Charlotte Akin is all charity and warmth as his nursemaid, who talks sense to both Chatterleys and offers her charge a conflicted sort of comfort when his grief becomes too much to bear. Nanna Ingvarsson (how nice to see her again) is Constance’s acerbic sister, a droll Bloomsbury type; Daniel Ladmirault is her lusty Scots father, among other characters.
Vreeke directs with a positively choreographic awareness of his actors’ bodies (an apt and intriguing approach to a text that celebrates the “unspeakable motion” of its heroine’s sensual skin-shedding). Hugh T. Owen is occasionally strident as Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper who sparks Lady Chatterley’s emergence from her Edwardian chrysalisbut then he’s the one who must voice Lawrence’s bitterest social critiques. When he stops growling about the injustices of the Industrial Age and moves with Shupe through one of their intensely personal tangos, he’s almost charismatic enough to make you forget the politics.
Not that you’d really want to: What makes Lady Chatterley’s Lover more than uncommonly literate softcore is Lawrence’s pairing of thoroughly human characters with thoroughly humane assessments of their places in a world that doesn’t serve them all equally well. He gives each of these troubled souls a shot at transformation, but keeps a careful tally of what it costs themand if the ledger seems to have been zeroed out by the end of the evening, it may be because Vreeke understands that it’s harder, in these troubled times, to believe that self-awareness is its own reward.
Tennessee Williams knew too well the agony of the self-aware in a smug and pitiless world; he was bard and champion of the damaged and the different, and nowhere did he make a more lyrical lament for their griefs than in The Night of the Iguana, with its titular symbol for all that’s cruel about our universe. In the messy but vivid production running in repertory with Lady Chatterley at the Clark Street Playhouse, that captive lizard is played by a mostly naked young manwhich is hardly the usual approach; it’s just one signifier of the surreal intensity director H. Lee Gable has brought to a play that was plenty feverish to begin with.
Set in the ’40s, at a tumbledown cliffside inn somewhere on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Iguana considerswell, it wallows inthe crisis of a disgraced priest who’s lost faith in the vengeful old god of his fathers and taken to preaching a harsh gospel: The deity, he’s discovered in his travels, is no more moral and no less brutal than red-toothed nature itself. And yet T. Lawrence Shannon still gropes wildly for redemption, clinging fiercely to a tour-guide job for which he’s eminently unsuited, to a sobriety that guarantees him pain, to a conviction that he can communicate the truth of his despairing vision to his shortsighted, self-involved traveler clients if only he can bring them to bear witness to the sufferings that surround them. (He’s constantly deviating from the approved itinerary, leading his charges out of the prettified tourist districts and into the seamy underbelly of one city or another, carefully pointing out each horror along the way.) Now and again, the futility of it overwhelms him, and it’s on one of these edge-of-a-breakdown occasions that Williams lets us discover him washed up on the verandah of the Costa Verde hotel, where he’s come to find an old friend who’s gentled him through more than one such episode. But the friend has died, and this time there is no shelter on the cliff at the rain forest’s edge.
Christopher Henley has a way with dissipated, desperate characters like Shannon, and he’s a convincing wreck here, even if it’s hard to see the gentlemanly charm that Williams suggests is behind much of the character’s trouble. (Adventures with underage women were among the offenses that got him thrown out of his parish, and they’re a problem still; when we meet him, he’s trying to fend off a recently seduced 16-year-old Texan and her outraged Baptist chaperone.) What Henley gets very right is the razor’s-edge nerviness of a sensitive personality on the verge of overload; it’s a jittery, exhausting performance that must be as draining for the actor as it is for the audience.
Cam Magee’s wise itinerant artist and Delia Taylor’s hard-bitten, life-loving sensualist of an innkeeper are the women who, each according to her gifts, would offer Shannon a lifeline if only he’d reach out for it; they are the madonna and the succuba, polar exemplars of femininity, Williams-style. (Together, they’re Blanche DuBois, she of the fine sensibilities and the fatal embrace.) Taylor’s Maxine is perhaps brassier and less needy than the playwright’s, and whereas other Hannahs have intoxicated their Shannons with the potent cocktail of feminine allure mixed with spiritual grace, Magee’s take on the character is almost a maternal one. Still, it is immensely warm, and both women are compelling characters. Barry Abrams lends his sonorous baritone to the play’s ancient poet, Hannah’s grandfather and traveling companion; the actor is darkly magnetic, as strange and fey here as he was in the more sinister but no less allegorical role he played in the Theater Alliance’s Slaughter City earlier this year.
An ideal production would have supporting players as sure and subtle as these four, but this is a big show in the hands of a small company, so perhaps a few frayed edges are forgivable. It must be noted nonetheless that Annie Houston’s church lady is a scold of uncommon shrillness, that John F. Bauer has misjudged the size of the space in which he’s making his professional debut (he plays his Jake Latta as if to the balcony of the Eisenhower), and that the chorus of hyperactive Germans is even more grating than Williams intended. And it’s by no means certain that that almost nude, body-painted iguana (Tim Prestridge) is adding anything to the proceedings.
What is certain is that Gable and his design team understand how devoted Williams was not just to passionate, poetic language, but to equally expressionist soundscapes and stage pictures. The production is a wash of jungle noises and tropical lights, a dark dream on an endless humid night. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s undeniably powerfuland that, Williams would’ve understood. CP