Metro-East Living

Festival commemorates works of St. Louis’ favorite son, Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams

The words and worlds of the world-renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright are again spotlighted in the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival in his former home in St. Louis.

There is something for all tastes — plays, live music, movies, paintings, readings, panel discussions, and tours. While the bulk of the festival runs May 3-7, all throughout Grand Center in midtown St. Louis, there are productions and components with extended runs.

“We thrive on the vibrancy of Grand Center. Mary Strauss and Ken and Nancy Kranzberg have embraced us,” festival director Carrie Houk said.

“I’m gratified that Tennessee’s hometown is now embracing our greatest playwright. We look forward to continuing to offer theatrical, artistic, and educational programming to the community, and becoming a major destination event,” Houk said.

Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in 1911 in Mississippi, he moved to St. Louis when he was 8 because his father, a traveling shoe salesman, was promoted at the International Shoe Co.

His hopeful quest to become a writer and earn a living through short stories, poetry, essays and plays blossomed here. Noted Tennessee Williams expert David Kaplan, back to direct again, said Williams found himself here.

This year’s festival celebrates those who aren’t the mainstream, “The Other,” Houk said.

“When we encounter strange people and ideas, many of us avoid, reject, even banish them. Tennessee Williams understands that by confronting and embracing the other, we can be elevated and mysteriously transformed. This is not just the magic of theater. It is the magic of the other,” she said.

“‘Small Craft Warnings’ bewitches us with a fog-enveloped seaside bar, full of characters who are simultaneously alien yet familiar. ‘Will Mr. Meriwether Return from Memphis?’ is literally fantastic, the fantasy intruding into reality in unpredictable and indeterminate ways. ‘Deseo’ reimagines the most famous Williams play through the experience of Castro-era Cubans. This festival removes us from the everyday...and then returns us just a little different,” she said.

Robin McGee of Highland, a professional costume designer who will return to the Muny this summer for “The Little Mermaid,” designed outfits for two of the plays.

I’m gratified that Tennessee’s hometown is now embracing our greatest playwright. We look forward to continuing to offer theatrical, artistic, and educational programming to the community, and becoming a major destination event.

Tennessee Williams director Carrie Houk

“I am honored that Carrie asked me to be a part of it all this year — very exciting,” she said. “I think having a Williams festival in St. Louis is perfect, since his history and family are tied here. So many people think only of New Orleans, when thinking of Williams. I think it could really be big for St. Louis, as it continues to grow.”

What are her challenges for the shows, “Small Craft Warnings” and “Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?”

“Small Craft is set in 1972, so it has been fun reliving and revisiting my childhood,” she said. “Merriwether is set in the 1910s, which is perfect for the Stockton house; which is beautiful. The challenges is that there are three actors playing 12 different characters, in addition to the three women and one man who plays only only character. This one is going to be great, because it is more of a performance art piece. Only 30 or so people in the audience, each scene takes place in a different room of the house.”

Here are some of the festival highlights:

ART EXHIBIT

Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter

Saint Louis University Museum of Art

May 5–July 30

Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Free AdmissionKey West Art & Historical Society

The showcase, Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter, is a major coup for St. Louis. These 18 deeply personal paintings, only once before shown outside of Key West, illustrate how Williams’s magical poetry brilliantly suffuses every art form he undertook.

Exhibited at the St. Louis University Museum of Art, they are on loan from the Key West Art & Historical Society and the owner of the paintings, Williams’s longtime friend David Wolkowsky.

BERTHA IN PARADISE

Curtain Call Lounge

May 3-14

527 N. Grand Blvd.

Grammy-winning St. Louis singer Anita Jackson performs a saucy stew of bawdy songs that she greeted audiences with at The Rooming-House Plays for the 2016 Festival. Anita’s back as that character Berth, crooning the bluesy “I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl,” slipping into the cult classic “If It Don’t Fit Don’t Force It,” and sharing the sophisticated passion of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Directed by David Kaplan, the cabaret features Charles Creath on the keyboards.WILL MR. MERRIWEATHER RETURN FROM MEMPHIS?

May 4 through May 21

Stockton House

3508 Samuel Shepard Drive

The historic Stockton House returns as the stage for “Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?” Jef Awada directs the first professional production in 50 years of this intimate, funny, poignant play.

Women are waiting for their lovers to return, widows are longing for their husbands who will never return, and young ladies are just discovering the fires of early love - sounds almost like a parody of a Tennessee Williams play, and in a strange way it is. With ragtime cakewalk dancers, séances and ghosts, hags called “the Eumenides” who weave the fate of the characters, a “Romantically Handsome Youth,” a gay French instructor, a banjo player in every scene, and the triumph of love found, love returned, and love forgiven, Williams wrote a comedy as full of poetry as of pleasure.

Terry Meddows of Fairview Heights is in the cast.

Robin McGee
Robin McGee of Highland, a professional costume designer who will return to the Muny this summer for “The Little Mermaid,” designed outfits for two of the Tennessee Williams plays. Provided

SMALL CRAFT WARNINGS

May 4 through May 14

The .Zack

3224 Locust St.

The marquee production of the festival is the little-known but critically heralded Williams play “Small Craft Warnings.” Richard Corley, one of America’s most praised Williams directors, directs a cast of St. Louis’s top performers.

The cast is headlined by New York’s renowned Williams interpreter Jeremy Lawrence as Doc, a role Williams himself played in its original New York City run. An expansion of Tennessee Williams’s earlier one-act play “Confessional,” this play is a kaleidoscopic pastiche of monologues delivered in a spotlight by each of the characters as the action around them becomes frozen and muted. Through them they reveal their loneliness and the emptiness of their existence.

FREE MOVIE: “SUMMER AND SMOKE”

Friday, May 5

Continuous loop

Public Media Commons in Grand Center

The movie “Summer and Smoke,” starring Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey, will be screened on a continuous loop.

“Summer and Smoke” is a classic tale of the girl next door told with a darker light. Set in Glorious Hill, Mississippi, from the “turn of the century through 1916,” and centers on a highly-strung, unmarried minister’s daughter, Alma Winemiller, and the spiritual/sexual romance that nearly blossoms between her and the wild, undisciplined young doctor who grew up next door, John Buchanan Jr. Join us for the classic tale of the girl next door told with a darker light!

DESEO

May 5-7

The Marcelle Theatre

3310 Samuel Shepard Drive

“Deseo” is an original work written by playwright Raquel Carrió and loosely based on the characters and plot line of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” “Deseo” is set in a fictional Latin American city, and departs from Streetcar by framing the story within the cultural codes of Latin America.

Playwright Raquel Carrió, known for her many contemporary writings that reinterpret iconic works within new cultural contexts, has written a work that recalls Williams’ original attitudes as well as the relationships between characters, while also adding new characters, and creating a different artistic and referential world from that of the American classic.

The actors, representing a variety of Latin American countries, cultures and linguistic styles, including Cuba, Mexico and Spain, also bring their own ethnic presence and awareness to the work, as well as their condition as immigrants, a factor which lends an additional layer of pathos to the piece and cements the cultural ambiguity and yearning for cultural attachment that characterizes this work.

Although Deseo’s plot line is loosely based on Williams’ original dramatic conflict, this original contemporary work adds layers to the original that speak to the realities of Latin American immigrants across the United States, as well as the idiosyncrasies of Latin America itself, in its continual attempt to culturally and socially mirror the mores and attitudes of the United States.

Performed in Spanish with English super-titles.

ST. LOUIS STORIES

Saturday, May 6

2 p.m.

The .Zack

“St. Louis Stories” is a compilation of unpublished stories by Thomas Lanier Williams, before he became “Tennessee,” set in the hometown of his youth. The characters reflect people he knew and the places he frequented. Often funny and sometimes harrowing, they testify to the talent of Williams at the beginning of his career.

These short stories and narrative poems are presented in a dramatic performance with an ensemble of actors from the Theatre Program of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Adapted for the stage by Tom Mitchell from materials in the Tennessee Williams Collection of the Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

NAMING THE DOG

Saturday, May 6

5 p.m.

The .Zack

The Tennessee Williams New Playwrights Initiative makes its debut this year. The winner is Jack Ciapciak’s “Naming the Dog,” also the recent winner of NYU’s Goldberg New Playwright Award. The play presents us with millennials who live near Ferguson, veering between attempts to cope with racial unrest and the apparently more consequential task of naming their new puppy. Directed by Linda Kennedy. Ciapciak will lead a Q&A after the staged reading.

STELLA SHOUTING CONTEST

Sunday, May 7

4 p.m.

Sophie’s Lounge at The Zack

Break out your version of Stanley’s ripped t-shirt and join the Tennessee Williams Festival-St. Louis for the metro region’s only “Stella Shouting Contest.”

Contestants* will be judged by our panel of distinguished festival guests as they recreate the famous scene from A Streetcar Named Desire.

First and second prizes include Stella Artois beer. (Contestants must be at least 21 to claim).

Those interested in showing off their vocal chops must email jonbee@twstl.org to be placed on the list.

TRIBUTE: MAGIC OF THE OTHER

Sunday, May 7, 7 p.m.

Curtain Call Lounge

“Tennessee Williams Tribute: Magic of the Other” features scenes, songs, and poetry as interpreted by special guests including Lara Teeter, Elizabeth Teeter, Anita Jackson, Michael James Reed, Jeremy Lawrence, Stellie Siteman, and a surprise vocalist from the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. OTSL is collaborating with the festival for a rare performance by soprano Deanna Breiwick of Stella’s aria, “I Can Hardly Stand It,” from Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

This program will again be curated by Thomas Keith, editor of the continuing series of Williams’s newly collected works for the New Directions Press in New York.

ENSEMBLE 2.0

Monday, May 8

8 p.m.

The .Zack.

Play based on letters found by relative Francesca Williams, daughter of Tennessee Williams’ brother Dakin, who lived in Collinsville.Angelica Page, Broadway actress and daughter of Academy Award-winning actress Geraldine Page, will headline. Staged as a dramatic reading with music, home movies, family photos, and interviews, it is taken from Williams’ collection of family letters from and about her famous uncle. Ben Watts of Belleville is among the performers.

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis’ mission is to enrich the cultural life of St. Louis by producing an annual theater festival and other artistic and educational events that celebrate the art and influence of Tennessee Williams.

Please check the festival’s Facebook page for updates and announcements. For more information, visit the website, www.twstl.org

PHOTO EXHIBIT

The .Zack

Free admission

New Orleans-based photographer Ride Hamilton has been creating haunting images in collaboration with stage director David Kaplan since 2013. With Hamilton in mind, Kaplan sets up opportunities backstage to record when actors in performance remain in character while retaining their own identity immediately before an entrance or after an exit. Exhibiting these eye-catching prints makes public an aspect of performance unseen by the audience.

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