Tennessee Williams was a complicated man, to say the least.  Not the nicest person to be around. Putting it mildly, he was a screwed-up mess, or at least that’s how he comes across in Joe Besecker’s Tennessee In The Summer.  Still, there are far less interesting people to spend an hour and a half with than the multi-award-winning playwright, especially as brought to vivid and complex life by Dan Alemshah in the ”member-initiated production” currently playing Tuesdays through Thursdays at West Coast Ensemble under Justin French’s assured direction. 

Besecker’s memory play splits Williams into two halves, one male, one female, both called Tennessee, though family members passing through his (their) memory refer to the male Tennessee as Tom. (Not coincidentally, the hero of Williams’ memory play The Glass Menagerie is also named Tom and visits to Williams’ memory by his sister Rose (a lovely turn by Sasha Carrera) recall Laura, Tom’s sister in TGM.)  The female half of Tennessee  Williams (a passionate and voluptuous Carla Barnett) bears more than a passing resemblance to Maggie, the Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Clearly, the more one is familiar with Williams’ work as a playwright, the more compelling Tennessee In The Summer will be. 

Most fascinating of all, and the best reason to see Tennessee In The Summer, is Tennessee’s 14-year relationship with Frank Merlo, the handsome young Sicilian-American who put up with Williams’ chronic “manizing” throughout their years together which ended only with Merlo’s death from lung cancer at the age of 42.  In a stunning star turn, Danny Araujo shows such sweetness and passionate commitment to Williams, whom Alemshah reveals to be such a troubled, hard-to-love soul, that one can’t help wondering what demons dwelled inside a man so blind to the gift he had been bestowed in Merlo. 

Though the male-female split seems mostly a gimmick to allow Williams to talk about himself without having to talk to either himself or the audience, the scenes between Alemshah (an Ovation Award winner for his unforgettable work in The Fat Of The Land) and WCE newcomer Araujo gripped and moved me as I don’t often find myself gripped and moved. Both give award-caliber performances.

Stephen Gifford’s set for The Graduate has been cleverly altered to become a New York City hotel room.  Unbilled lighting, costume, and sound design are all first rate.

Though Tennessee In The Summer may not be for everyone, Williams fans will find much to appreciate in this “bonus” production (no reservations are required and admission is by donation) at the illustrious West Coast Ensemble.  

West Coast Ensemble, El Centro Theatre, 800 N. El Centro, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley 
March 3, 2009

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