Tennessee in Mexico

"Nothing human disgusts me, unless it's unkind or violent." So remarks Hannah Jelkes, the spinster-paragon of The Night of the Iguana. She could be speaking for her creator, Tennessee Williams. That's very likely just what Williams had in mind--reading or watching him, one always has the feeling that Williams saw himself as one of those epigrammatic, delicate-yet-strong old maids he so loved to depict.

The Night of the Iguana is set on the veranda of a small, ramshackle hotel atop a jungle hill on the Mexican Riviera. The original production, staged in 1961, was set in 1940; the current ASU production has been updated to 1989.

Now, when the German tourists come bursting onto the veranda where Miss Jelkes and the other main character, T. Lawrence Shannon, are baring their souls to each other, the news about which they're exultant isn't the blitz on London, but the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

As skewed as that parallel may sound, the updating works. The Night of the Iguana feels much less dated than most of Williams' other plays--and when I say "dated," I don't mean dusty and outdated. Williams remains one of the two or three best dramatists America has yet produced, and his best plays are fresher than anything we're seeing now. But they're rooted in their period--the sexual and social milieu which informs, say, A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof isn't much less remote than that of Gone With the Wind.

Iguana isn't an obvious masterpiece, like Streetcar. It's probably a more enjoyable evening at the theatre, though, because it's Williams in a lighter mood.

While it doesn't lack poignancy, the piece has a relaxed, sexy comic spirit. Actually, it might make a pretty good TV sitcom--a Mexican hotel where a semidefrocked, jail-baited Episcopal priest turned bus-tour guide, a poised New England spinster and the horny, widowed proprietress all trade quips.

Shannon, whose taste for underage girls and tendency toward emotional breakdowns proved obstacles in his earlier vocation, is on the verge of the latter, having just indulged the former, as the play begins. He drags his busload of Texan Baptist girls' school teachers to the Costa Verde Hotel, run by his rowdy and lusty friend Maxine and, until recently, her late husband, Fred.

The ladies, outraged at his (consensual) violation of a teenager of their party, are trying to get him fired. Maxine's all for this--she'd like the handsome, well-worn Shannon to stay with her at the Costa Verde.

Into this setup come Hannah and her grandfather--she's a sketch artist, he's a poet of 97 years. Hannah and Shannon strike up an acquaintance. In the last act, the near-hysterical Shannon is tied up in restraints in a hammock, while Hannah, in trying to calm him, plumbs his tormented depths and allows her own depths to be likewise (platonically) plumbed.

The ASU production is given a fast, straightforward, unfussy interpretation by director Marshall W. Mason. It's a well-mounted and generally fine production, though it's saddled with a central problem, one that's inescapable in academic drama: While the minor roles, with one exception, are age-appropriately cast and played with uniform excellence, the three gifted leads are each about 20 years too young.

One of them, Molly Schaffer as Hannah, very nearly overcomes this limitation. She could almost be said to carry the show, with her intelligent eyes and her dryly witty yet soothing voice. The role convincingly inhabits her from the neck down, too--she pulls off a terrific piece of physical business at one point when she thinks she's about to be kissed.

Maxine is played by Lisa Nix; she's an uncommonly attractive actress with a sensual, life-loving grin, but, alas, she has no choice but to affect hard-bitten earthiness, and seems forced. Her miscasting is only chronological, though--she'd make a perfect Maxine someday when she's caught up with the character.

The same sentiments may apply to Erik Leeper as Shannon, but the heavy load of stage time and the wild mood swings take a toll on him (and on us). He gets by adequately, but he's a little unvaried.

Deron Bos gives the role of Nonno, the ancient poet, to use an apt cliche, the old college try, and he acquits himself with honesty. The supporting players, especially Brian Patterson, Todd Serve, Neely S. Margo and Dana Millican as the Germans, Barbi Wengerd as the diesel-powered Miss Fellows and Darby Lynn Totten as the avid young Charlotte, all have the ring of authenticity.

Jeff Thomson's set looks marvelous, and is marvelously lighted by Paul Black. It may not, however, be as practical as it is good-looking--the veranda seems cramped at times and, perhaps because of this, Mason's staging of the larger-group scenes is occasionally muddy, especially in the second act.

Williams isn't a bit shy or subtle about his use of symbols. In Iguana, the title character, played at ASU by a stately, morose-faced reptile named Otto, is also the play's key symbol.

The hapless creature has been captured by the Mexican boys who work at the hotel, and is tied up below the veranda, awaiting slaughter. Shannon, inevitably, equates the lizard with himself--they're both, he asserts, at the end of their respective ropes.

But he's at the end of his rope because of a distaste for the narrowness of organized religion and a taste for young girls and for the odd histrionic crackup. It's rather grand to suggest that that's the same as being at the end of one's rope because you've been caught by Mexican boys who mean to torture, butcher, cook and eat you. There's a comic incongruity between Shannon's supposed sufferings and that of the symbol he rather maudlinly claims for himself.

This irony is what makes The Night of the Iguana both a lesser and a more exuberant Williams--basically, it's a comedy about self-pity. Deliberately or not, this is how the ASU production plays it, and that's why, minor or unavoidable flaws aside, it's a good time.

The Night of the Iguana continues through Saturday, March2, at Paul V. Galvin Playhouse in ASU's Nelson Fine Arts Center, Tenth Street and Mill in Tempe.


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