Glendale’s A Noise Within (“California’s Classical Theatre Company”) is about the closest thing Los Angeles has to an “artists in residence” repertory ensemble, which for theatergoers means that each of their superb productions is likely to feature many of the same gifted actors who’ve delivered memorable performances in years past.  For the resident artists, it means a kind of job security which is almost non-existent in L.A. theater, plus a chance to perform some of the greatest roles ever written, in works by Shakespeare and Racine and Moliere and Shaw and Miller and Foote and, in the current production of The Night Of The Iguana, by Tennessee Williams.

Like Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, The Night Of The Iguana features a lead character on the edge of madness, and indeed many have compared Iguana’s defrocked preacher T. Lawrence Shannon with Streetcar’s Blanche Dubois.  Just as Blanche has given actresses from Jessica Tandy to Vivien Leigh to Natasha Richardson the chance to delve deep into a troubled soul, so has Shannon offered actors the opportunity to show what stuff they’re made of. Here the role goes to Geoff Elliott, who gives a doozy of a performance that is theatrical in the best sense of the word. Playing opposite Elliott are A Noise Within stalwarts Deborah Strang and Jill Hill, adding Maxine Faulk and Hannah Jelkes to the list of characters these two resident artists have had the great good fortune to sink their teeth into. With director Michael Murray at the helm, it is a sure bet that ANW’s production will be a winner, which it most certainly is.

The year is 1940, the setting is a rundown hotel in Puerto Barrio, Mexico, and Larry Shannon has just shown up on innkeeper Maxine’s doorstep with a busload of eleven old maid schoolteachers from First Baptist Christian College in Texas.  “How long have you been off the wagon?” is one of Maxine’s first questions to Shannon, soon after which she comments, “You are going to pieces, aren’t you?” (Little doubt that Shannon will turn out to be a person with problems.)  

Blowzy doesn’t begin to describe Maxine, a woman doesn’t even bother to button her shirt because “it’s September and I don’t dress in September.” “I’m a widow!” she exclaims in a mixture of shock and glee when asked the whereabouts of her husband Fred.  “Maxine, you are bigger than life and twice as unnatural,” declares Shannon, who has just gotten himself in more than a bit of a jam.  He has had sex with an “emotionally precocious musical prodigy” named Charlotte, niece of one of the schoolmarm spinsters and “one month shy of seventeen.”  Aunt Judith, a crabby middle-aged battleaxe if there ever was one, is trying to get Shannon fired, and arrested on a charge of statutory rape (which the Reverend defines as being “seduced by a woman under 20”).  It is clear that Shannon is barely hanging on by a thread.

Soon after Reverend Shannon’s arrival, up the hill trudges 40something virgin Hannah Jelkes pushing the wheelchair of her ancient, infirm grandfather, the penniless duo in search of lodging.  “Honey, that old man ought to be in a hospital,” says Maxine, stating the obvious, but Hannah insists that they will be able to pay their way. Nonno (as she calls him) is “97-years-young with amazing recuperative properties” and “the world’s oldest living and practicing poet.” He will give recitations and she will paint watercolors and caricatures which the hotel guests will surely want to buy, Hannah maintains.

We soon learn what a complex man this Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon is. “I was not defrocked,” he insists to Hannah, but rather locked out of his very first church, only a year after he had become their pastor.  The reason? “Fornication and heresy the same week.” It seems that not only did young Larry have sex with one of the church’s two spinster sisters, he then preached a sermon in which he called God “an angry petulant old man” and “a senile delinquent” whom he could no longer worship.  Soon after that, he began leading tour groups, a career move which has brought him to Mexico and the end of the line.

Act 1 of Night Of The Iguana introduces its characters, which also include an obnoxious trio of German tourists and a pair of hunky Mexican houseboys. Act 2 focuses on Shannon and Hannah, in a series of intense scenes in which both reveal intimacies and attempt to find some kind of salvation in each other. Throughout the play runs the metaphor of the iguana which the houseboys have captured and which will be kept tied up until its “white meat chicken” flesh will be served to the hotel guests.

ANW Founder and Artistic Co-Director Geoff Elliott is at his best when playing complex, theatrical characters as he has done with Cornelius Melody in Eugene O’Neil’s A Touch Of The Poet and his best Don Quixote ever in Man Of La Mancha.  Elliott’s Reverend Shannon is a powder keg of complex demons and desires set to explode at any moment, as in fact he does, multiple times, in scenes of powerful histrionics. In Elliott’s hands, we know that even at Shannon’s calmest, madness is never far beneath the surface.

The role of Hannah seems at first to be a secondary one, that is until the second act, much of which features just two lost and lonely people, Shannon and Hannah, alone together under the Mexican night sky.  Jill Hill has graduated from the ingénue roles she played during her early years with ANW and here proves herself a first rate character actress.  Hannah’s brittle surface masks deep waters, and Hill’s work in Iguana is among her finest ever, most notably in a poignant scene in which she reveals with something close to pride the lone two “romantic” moments of her life.  She gives dignity to a role which in lesser hands might be merely pathetic.

Every great rep company must have its Meryl Streep or Bette Davis, and ANW’s is Deborah Strang, playing here a role that Miss Davis created on Broadway, that of the vulgar, earthy Maxine. Versatility must be Strang’s middle name. It’s hard to believe that Maxine is being played by the same actress who was equally real as the sophisticated wife in Arthur Miller’s The Price and the down to earth mother in All My Sons. There isn’t a false or vain moment in her work as the bawdy innkeeper down on her luck and lusting after a fallen man of God.

The rest of the cast is equally fine, including Julia Silverman as the mean and grumpy Judith Fellows, Steve Weingartner as Shannon’s no-nonsense boss, and Tim Venable as the beleaguered bus driver. Don Oscar Smith, Judy Nazemeth, and Jill Maglione provide laugh relief as the family of German tourists who make the proverbial “ugly American abroad” seem positively charming by comparison.  Courtney Decosky throws a mean tantrum as Charlotte, the teenager with a sexual appetite the size of Texas.  André Bauth and Andrés De La Fuente are precisely the kind of houseboys playwright Williams may well have lusted over in his trips south of the border.  Finally, in the role of nearly 98-years-young Nonno, Tom Fitzpatrick utterly convinces us that he is decades older than the actor playing him and indeed on the last legs of his life journey.

Kudos to director Murray for guiding his cast to such excellence, and to the entire ANW design team for making the production look and sound so fine: Sara Ryung Clement’s colorful tropical set, Julie Keen’s character-perfect costumes, Ken Booth’s rich and evocative lighting, Byron Batista’s wig, hair and makeup design, and Rachel Myles’ sound design, all of which transport us to a different time and a different place.

It’s been a while since The Night Of The Iguana has been presented in L.A., and the opportunity to see it performed by the pros at A Noise Within is one not to be missed.

A Noise Within, 234 S Brand Blvd. Glendale. 

–Steven Stanley
May 8, 2008
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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