REVIEW: of The Night of the Iguana, presented by La Femme Theatre Productions at the Signature Theatre Pershing Square Center, New York City, through February 25 (viewed here January 10).
“You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave….”
So sang The Eagles of those who dare a stay at the “Hotel California.” And much the same might be said of the haunted occupants of Tennessee Williams’ 1961 Broadway play, The Night of the Iguana.
The Night of the Iguana was the capstone of Williams’ impressive run of major plays produced on Broadway from 1948 through 1961 – the last of his full-length masterworks of subtly symbolist realism, before he moved on to more abstruse forays into dramaturgical experiment.
It’s 1940 at the Costa Verde, a shabby resort hotel on the Pacific coast of Mexico. A heterogeneous assortment of characters finds themselves stuck in place – logistically, psychologically, spiritually. Grappling with existential arrest, lust and repression, inurement to sin and longing for salvation, these are the human counterpart to the unlucky iguana that some local youths have tethered to a stake beneath the hotel veranda, fattening it for the kill while deriving grim amusement from its vain efforts to escape.
Principal among Williams’ protagonists is one T. Lawrence Shannon, a former man of the cloth recently expelled from the pulpit for outrageous homiletic blasphemies. He is now employed by a sketchy travel agency, guiding credulous American tourists around Mexico.
Shannon’s tortured spirituality, not to mention his proclivity for boozy dissipation, is aggravated by his conflicted attraction to three very different women – Maxine Faulk, the recently widowed proprietess of the Costa Verde, who has her own carnal designs on Shannon; Charlotte Goodall, an underage member of Shannon’s current tour group (the members of which are scandalized by Shannon’s sexual dalliance with the girl); and the ostensibly chaste New England spinster, Hannah Jelkes, whose combination of virtue and emergent passion engender in Shannon a lurid fascination.
Helmed by eminent theater director Emily Mann (former artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center), the current La Femme Theatre Productions revival of Iguana boasts an exemplary cast of several truly distinguished stage veterans.
As the former Rev. Shannon, Tim Daly muscularly engages with Williams’ distinctive blend of inspired bluster, lapidary sententiae and striking gnomic insights. Both the character’s dissolution and his latent strength are impressively illuminated.
Daphne Rubin-Vega plays hotel owner Maxine Faulk with a sly and earthy sensuality, creating an ideal foil – and source of erotic provocation – for Daly’s Shannon.
Jean Lichty, the founder of La Femme Theatre Productions, lends a disarmingly warm-voiced and deliberately paced sultriness to the role of spinster Hannah Jelkes, belying the character’s avowed probity. The disclosure of her latent role as Shannon’s ultimate spiritual antagonist comprises what is probably the play’s most riveting sequence.
The role of Miss Judith Fellowes, the decidedly butch “mother hen,” chaperone and protectress of the touring ladies whom Shannon has stranded at the Costa Verde, is played by versatile actress/comedian Lea DeLaria as an implacable avenging angel. DeLaria’s vows to destroy Shannon for his involvement with the underage Charlotte are rendered with over-the-top hilarity and terrifying potency.
Carmen Berkeley evinces unapologetic nymphet aggressiveness in the role of Charlotte Goodall, the center of arguably the most morally transgressive plot strand in the play.
Rounding out Iguana’s band of marooned human squamata are the neatly limned performances of Eliud Garcia Kauffman as the stalwart bus driver Hank; Keith Randolph Smith as the formidable enforcer, Jake; Bradley James Tejeda and Dan Teixeira as the hotel’s two ubiquitous functionaries, Pedro and Pancho; and Alena Acker and Michael Leigh Cook in the subversive and darkly comic roles of pro-Nazi German tourists Frau and Herr Fahrenkopf.
Mann’s production is handsomely mounted. The set design by Beowulf Boritt is both arresting and economical – the expansive deck of the Costa Verde’s veranda is cantilevered so as to jut forward at a forty-five degree angle from the structural lip of the Pershing Square Signature Center’s mainstage. It seems suspended by unseen forces in an enveloping void of initially lustrous tropical sun which gradually darkens as night and storm come on in support of Williams’ shamelessly effective programmatic underscoring of the darkening human drama.
Costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser, lighting by Jeff Croiter, and a subtly ubiquitous surround-sound design by Darron L West all contribute enormously to the production’s palpable textures.
As Night Falls
The Night of the Iguana is susceptible of myriad interpretations and decodings. It is rich in both humor (a quality this production at times indulges preeminently) and throbbingly evoked desolation. Psychic instabilities and treacherous frictions undergird the drama, chafing invisibly against each other like tectonic plates threatening upheaval.
But there is also a suggestion of submerged, redemptive allegory. Perhaps the most poignant and memorable articulation of hope and ineffable beauty is provided via the quasi-choric role of “Nonno,” Hannah’s nearly-centenarian grandfather – a role luminously and heartbreakingly played in this production by the invaluable Austin Pendleton.
In between frequent spontaneous catnaps, and bouts of occasional cognitive disruption, Nonno, a once celebrated “minor” poet, is working out the final lines of his final poem. It is perhaps Williams’ own reflection on his own struggles, and an inspired lyric of encouragement, endurance and hope.
“And still the ripe fruit and the branch / Observe the sky begin to blanch / Without a cry, without a prayer, / With no betrayal of despair. / O Courage, could you not as well / Select a second place to dwell, / Not only in that golden tree / But in the frightened heart of me?”