The McCorkles of Tennessee Williams’ A House Not Meant To Stand would seem to have more in common with the trailer trash of Del Shores’ Sordid Lives than with the lost souls of The Glass Menagerie or other early Williams’ plays. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Tennessee’s last play, now getting its West Coast Premiere nearly thirty years after it first opened in Chicago, so much. That, and the fact that it’s the latest offering by the only Intimate Theater in Los Angeles to win the L.A. Ovation Award for Production Of The Year four times.

The Fountain Theatre has a history of presenting some of Tennessee Williams’ most provocative works, from Summer And Smoke (1999) to Night Of The Iguana (2001) to The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (2007), making it entirely appropriate that producers Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor have decided to celebrate Williams’ Centennial by staging another of his plays—and one most West Coasters will be discovering for the first time.

A Gothic Comedy is how Williams chose to subtitle A House Not Meant To Stand, Gothic as in Southern Gothic—but with the accent most definitely on the Comedic. Audiences are therefore advised to leave behind any highfalutin’ preconceived notions of Williams’ solemnity as a playwright and to laugh whenever the spirit—or spirits (as in Mississippi moonshine)—moves them.

Heading McCorkle household is Cornelius (Alan Blumenfeld), poor-white-trash cousin to Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’s Big Daddy, though this time instead of having a fortune of his own to pass on to his issue, Cornelius’ main goal in life is to figure out how to pry from Bella (Sandy Martin), his hobbling infirmity of a wife, the secret of where she’s hidden her late granddaddy’s ill-gotten loot. With one son (the gay one) just buried and the other—the ne’er-do-well Charlie (Daniel Billet)—arrived back home with ditzy pregnant fiancée Stacey (Virginia Newcomb) in tow, the McCorkles are the antithesis of Southern Gentility, and their neighbors Jessie and Emerson Sykes (Lisa Richards and Robert Craighead) aren’t any more couth than Cornelius’s familial bunch.

With a storm raging throughout the play, and rain dripping down into buckets strewn around Jeff McLaughlin’s deliciously trashy, ramshackle set, Cornelius tries to no avail to pry the secret of Granddaddy’s moonshine-earned, long-hidden booty from his demented wife. Meanwhile Charlie does his best to protect Momma from dear ol’ Dad, Stacey searches for something other than a sheet to put on, Emerson attempts to put the dirty-ol’-man moves on nubile young Stacey, and Jessie breaks the fourth wall to recount her quest to stay youthful well past her sixtieth birthday via the wonders of plastic surgery.

If Chicago audiences were disappointed not to get more of the subtlety and depth of Tennessee’s earliest works (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer And Smoke, The Rose Tattoo) when A House Not Meant To Stand played the Goodman in 1982, contemporary Angelinos will find much to relish in Williams’ last produced play, and not just as a curiosity. It’s fascinating to see how the ‘60s and ‘70s changed the playwright, how the homosexuality only hinted at in his first hits became explicit in Cornelius’s rants about his son’s deviant lifestyle in the big city, and how themes treated dramatically in earlier years had become fuel for comedy by 1982.

Integral to the success of A House Not Meant To Stand’s West Coast Premiere are its esteemed director Simon Levy and the sterling cast he has assembled, all of whom do the kind of accomplished, multi-layered work that audiences have come to expect at the Fountain.

To quote from my review of last year’s Awake And Sing, “No one plays bombastic better than Blumenfeld,” a feat which the versatile actor achieves once again (to considerably funnier effect) in his standout work as cantankerous, rapacious Cornelius. Blumenfeld is matched every step of the way by Martin, alternatingly hilarious and heartbreaking as the pitiful, pitiable Bella. Billet vanishes inside Charlie’s coarse, crude, yet somehow still cute redneck exterior. Richards and Craighead make for a marvelously mismatched couple, the former especially memorable as the nipped/tucked, boy-crazy Jessie. Chip Bent does winning work as police officer “Pee Wee” Jackson, no longer “Pee Wee” to the delight of oversexed Jessie, and Kevin High makes for a sympathetic Dr. Crane. Finally, there’s the sensational Newcomb, who owes the playwright a Heavenly Hallmark Thank You for the role of baby-doll sexy, fanatically religious Stacey, whose ecstatic speaking-in-tongues, full-body monolog the young actress delivers with the kind of tour-de-force abandon that wins awards.

Scenic designer McLaughlin never fails to astound, this time surrounding the audience with the dirty, faded wallpaper of the McCorkle home, making us guests in quite possibly the most uninvitingly dilapidated mess of a living room ever to dirty an L.A. stage, aided and abetted by Misty Carlisle’s splendid props. A special Best Scrim award ought to be created for the one which surrounds the McCorkle dining room, a see-through wall which, combined with Keith Skretch’s wondrous video design, allows us to believe in the ghosts which haunt Bella’s addled brain. Ken Booth’s outstanding lighting design aids immensely in setting moods, Peter Bayne’s sound design convinces us that it is indeed storming outside, and Naila Aladdin-Sanders’ costumes are delectably distressed creations. Kudos go too to dialect coach JB Blanc, fight director Doug Lowry, production stage manager Elna Kordijan, assistant stage manager Terri Roberts, and technical director Scott Tuomey.

By the end of this month, there will be a grand total of four major productions by or about Tennessee Williams gracing L.A. stages, including Camino Real at Theatre @ Boston Court, Eccentricities Of A Nightingale at A Noise Within, and the biographical Anna And Tennessee (starring Fountain & Tennessee Williams favorites Morlan Higgins and Karen Kondazian) at the Odyssey, though none is likely to match A House Not Meant To Stand in downright outrageousness. For those willing to throw away preconceived notions of what a Williams play ought to be, A House Not Meant To Stand is likely not only to entertain, but to spark many a discussion of just how his wild-and-crazy last produced play fits in with the rest of Tennessee’s much loved, much lauded body of work.

The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles.
–Steven Stanley
March 3, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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