Saturday, October 1, 2011

Broken Gates: Tennessee Williams' Period of Adjustment at the Berkshire Theatre Festival

Rebecca Brooksher and Paul Fitzgerald in Period of Adjustment (Photo: Christy Wright)

Like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams wrote only one full-length comedy, but the comic efforts of America’s two greatest playwrights stand in different relationships to the rest of their output. O’Neill’s 1933 Ah, Wilderness! is a wish-fulfillment fantasy version of his own family; it’s the flip side of his autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night, with every tragic detail neutralized or reimagined to produce the benign, affectionate all-American family life he could only dream of. The best productions of the play air traces of the melancholy that the play deftly represses; the worst are situation comedies.  By contrast Williams’s Period of Adjustment (1960) isn’t at a far remove from his dramas.  In the two awkward, disappointed couples Williams juxtaposes on a snowy Memphis Christmas Eve, we recognize the playwright’s ongoing portrait of a fumbling humanity out of step with its own worn dreams but still on its feet.  A rare and sensitive production of the play by David Auburn at the end of the Berkshire Theatre Festival season highlighted the lovely qualities of this forgotten work. (A broad, frantic movie adaptation in 1962 with Jane Fonda, Anthony Franciosa, Jim Hutton and Lois Nettleton didn’t do much to bolster the play’s reputation.)

The play begins when George Haverstick (C.J. Wilson) drops his bride Isabel (Rebecca Brooksher) off with his Air Force buddy Ralph Bates (Paul Fitzgerald), then peels out of his driveway without an introduction or an explanation. The Haversticks met at a hospital where he was a patient and she was his nurse and married quickly without knowing each other very well; she was a virgin, and her repulsion at the grossness, in her opinion, of his wedding-night advances have started the marriage off badly. He’s so uncomfortable and terrified about the prospect of settling down with a wife that he’s planned their honeymoon as a series of delay tactics, stopovers at the homes of men he knew in the service; he and Ralph fought together in both World War II and Korea. Until George finally returns -– with a bottle he went hunting for as a Christmas present for Ralph -– Ralph and Isabel, total strangers, are stuck struggling to make conversation and make sense out of George’s abrupt behavior. Ralph is hardly in a position to administer counsel to honeymooners slogging painfully through their period of adjustment. His own wife, Dorothea (Anney Giobbe), has just walked out on him after he quit his job with her father.

The set-up is comic, but the emotions are familiar from other Williams plays, as is the theme of men and women reaching out to each other to help them negotiate their loneliness. Williams finds the only salvation in what Hannah Jelkes, in The Night of the Iguana, calls “broken gates between people,” where there is a momentary respite from life’s assaults and a little space to heal the wounds it has inflicted. These marriages -– Ralph and Dorothea’s, which has produced a little boy, and George and Isabel’s, which has barely begun -– have been disappointments because all four people have turned out to be different from their mates’ expectations of them.  (Moreover, once George returns and he and Ralph become reacquainted, they turn out to be different men in each other’s eyes from the young warriors they were in their teens and twenties.)  And the two couples have failed to find a way to make sexual desire operate as a salve for loneliness, though in both cases it has the potential to do so –- and it’s that potential that makes the play a comedy. The obstacle courses are different in the two marriages. Ralph married Dorothea, the play implies, more out of convenience than love and didn’t begin to desire her until later, and he’s so angry about his situation (his in-laws, his job) that he’s undervalued how much she means to him. George married a woman who turned him on, but he’s unused to the realities of a man and woman living together, and he’s stunned to discover that she expects to be courted after he’s already won her.

Rebecca Brooksher and C.J. Wilson (Photo: Christy Wright)
If the play were a tragedy, there would be more emphasis on the afflictions that have hobbled the male characters in particular Ralph’s restlessness and George’s shakes, which made it so difficult for him to hold his tools that he quit his workman’s job (without telling Isabel until afterwards) and has arrived at his friend’s door with a half-baked scheme to move west and raise horses for TV westerns. Still we take note of them, and Auburn includes an affecting moment when, after Isabel gently takes George’s hands as if to calm his tremor. The scene is paralleled by one between the other couple where Dorothea is touched by Ralph's kindness in putting out the money to buy her a coat for Christmas.  Her reaction overrides the show he's been making throughout the play of selling it, along with the furniture in their house, so he can move out now that he considers the marriage is over. (Williams includes a wonderful loony detail about that house:  after they moved in, the Bateses discovered that it had been built over a slowly sinking cavern. There’s an ingenious comic metaphor for the perils that married life can both meet and embody: Ralph and Dorothy have to figure out a way to keep on living together without winding up at the bottom of that cavern.)

The four performers are all good, especially Brooksher and Fitzgerald. She has a funky interior rhythm that keeps her mouth moving to the end of her thoughts no matter what kind of cacophony surrounds her, and both of them really inhabit Williams’s idiosyncratic dialogue –- they make it their own. Mark Corkins and Mia Dillon show up somewhere in the middle of the play as Dorothea’s folks, the McGillicuddys, with whom she’s taken refuge:  Corkins gives a plausible impersonation of a self-made man whose pride in himself is a little unsavory (he isn’t far away from the good old boys Williams makes us cringe at in Orpheus Descending and Sweet Bird of Youth), but Dillon’s cartoonish performance is at odds with the style of the rest of the acting. The addition of a fifth and sixth character challenges the resources of R. Michael Miller’s functional set, and Auburn’s staging shows the strain of having to fit everyone comfortably on stage together. Wade Laboissonniere designed costumes that ingeniously point up elements in the characters. I particularly liked the robe he gave Isabel to change into after her shower. George’s masculine pride has been hurt by her resistance to his wedding-night sexual aggressiveness, but when you see that robe, with its delicate feminine sexiness, you realize that far from being frigid or hysterically virginal, she has actually been anticipating a honeymoon night filled with romantic passion –- and then was let down when he didn’t have a clue about how to give it to her.

Tennessee Williams was badly served in the Berkshires earlier in the summer when David Cromer mounted a ludicrous Streetcar Named Desire that showed not the smallest understanding of the text. The BTF Period of Adjustment redressed the balance and provided a welcome glimpse of a Williams play that, though minor, is unmistakably the work of a master.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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