Monday, September 8, 2014

A Small Surprise: A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

Deborah Hay and Kate Hennig in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. (Photo:David Cooper)

For its annual lunchtime one-act, an eagerly anticipated tradition, this year the Shaw Festival has picked one of Tennessee Williams’s last and least known plays, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. (It was first produced in 1979, four years before his death, with Shirley Knight in the lead.) Williams wrote it as a full-length work in two scenes; trimmed by the director, Blair Williams, to just under an hour, it turns out to be one of the highlights of the season.

The play is both raucous and lyrical-tender – a trademark Williams combination. Set in St. Louis in the mid-thirties, it centers on Dorothea (Deborah Hay), a delicate, easily frazzled young woman who teaches high-school civics classes and shares an apartment with Bodey (Kate Hennig), a working-class German-American spinster who calls her Dotty. The two names hint at the tension between the protagonist’s current lifestyle and the one she intends to shift into. Bodey keeps trying to set her up with her twin brother Buddy, a hefty, beer-drinking, cigar-smoking fellow (whom we never meet), but he holds no remote interest for Dotty. On this particular Sunday, Bodey is putting together a picnic for the three of them to share at Creve Coeur, out in the country. But Dotty doesn’t want to encourage Buddy, and unbeknownst to Bodey she’s made arrangements to move in with the art history teacher, Helena (Kaylee Harwood), in a more upscale neighborhood that she can’t really afford. (Dotty isn’t good with money; you might think of one of the lines Williams wrote for Blanche DuBois, whom Dotty is a variation of: “Money just goes. It just goes places.”) Helena always refers to Dotty as Dorothea.

In the course of the play, Bodey and Helena, who comes around to cement plans for the new place, collide and naturally take an immediate dislike to each other. Helena, whom Williams describes as “a stylishly dressed woman with the eyes of a predatory bird,” is high-handed, sharp-tongued and controlling and comments on the vulgarity of the apartment – furnished entirely by Bodey, who occupied it before Dotty moved in – as soon as she enters. Bodey resents the intrusion and tries to keep the uninvited visitor away from her friend. What the two women have in common is their concern over Dotty’s romantic attachment to the handsome new principal, Ralph Ellis – another offstage presence – whose phone call she’s expecting and with whom she contemplates a happy future. She alone doesn’t know that an item in today’s paper spells out the impossibility of that scenario. We can guess what it says, but Williams withholds the information until the end of the play. Bodey is so worried about Dotty’s reaction to the news that she cuts out the article and discards it.

Julain Molnar as Sophie Gluck. (Photo:David Cooper)
There’s one other character, Sophie Gluck (Julain Molnar), an upstairs neighbor whom big-hearted, maternal Bodey has befriended. Sophie, who speaks only German and so can’t converse with anyone else in the building, is overcome with depression after the death of her mother and comes down every day for coffee and sympathy. Williams treats Sophie comically (at least, until the last minutes of the play), and I don’t know whether her scenes might work in another production; here they’re played too broadly, though Molnar tries hard and you admire her energy and focus.

As Helena, Harwood makes a striking entrance, but her performance is too narrowly conceived; after a while she seems to be playing the same scene over and over again. Williams didn’t give her much range, so an actress in the role needs to substitute comic invention for complexity; Harwood has some but not enough to sustain her. Hennig – who plays another square-rigged character this season, in J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married – is excellent. But the pulsing heart of the production if Deborah Hay’s charming and affecting portrait of Dorothea. Hay uses her compact dancer’s frame and her light, candied voice to suggest the character’s gossamer fragility.

Director Williams has all of his actors (except, of course, Molnar) speak in southern accents, though the play is set in Missouri, not Mississippi. (I’ve heard a distinctly southern lilt from actors playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie, which also takes place in St. Louis.) And when you sit down to read Creve Coeur, you understand why – you can hear those accents in the stylized dialogue. You might say it’s written in Williams-speak. So, odd as it may seem, I think the company made the right vocal choice. The play is sweet and occasionally funny on the page, but it really comes to life on the Court House stage, and I think the editing has strengthened the play, which is small-scale, like one of the early one-acts Williams wrote (like Portrait of a Madonna, which he eventually worked into A Streetcar Named Desire). Creve Coeur is a fortuitous choice for the Shaw, and I was happy to have the opportunity to see it performed.

– 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 and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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