Ginna Carter gives quite possibly the year’s most brilliant dramatic performance as Alma Winemiller in Pacific Resident Theatre’s absolutely superb revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale, impeccably directed by Dana Jackson.
Broadway audiences first met Alma back in 1948 when Summer And Smoke introduced them to the Mississippi preacher’s daughter, but the small-town spinster he later recreated in Eccentricities, and indeed the play itself, are distinctive enough to make his 1978 rewrite worth seeing, even by those who know Williams’ earlier play by heart.
Unlike Summer And Smoke’s more traditionally prim-and-proper Southern belle, Eccentricities’ Alma is, well, eccentric. “Peculiar” is how she’s often described by those around her, and mocked for being so, much as Tennessee himself must have been as an effeminate gay boy growing up in the early 20th-century American South.
Leading lady Carter makes it clear from her first appearance that Alma Winemiller is one queer bird indeed, never overplaying her eccentricities but making it abundantly clear why she is universally thought of as bizarre.
As in Summer And Smoke, Eccentricities’ Alma has a long-smoldering thing going for drop-dead gorgeous boy next door John Buchanan (Andrew Dits), fresh out of Johns Hopkins Medical School and his father’s likely successor as the town medico.
This time round, however, Dr. John is less lothario and more momma’s boy, Eccentricities introducing us to the possessive, manipulative, heretofore unseen Mrs. Buchanan (Rita Obermeyer). (A scene in which Mommy can’t keep her fingers out of sonny boy’s moist curls or his naked “toesies” is about as incestuously squirm-worthy as scenes get.)
Not only did Williams succeed in eliminating the melodrama he felt detracted from Summer And Smoke’s effectiveness, leaving in its stead a more focused glimpse into a woman’s heart and soul, Eccentricities spends most of its three acts in the dead of winter as Alma pines over John, Reverend Winemiller (Brad Greenquist) frets over his increasingly batty wife (Mary Jo Deschanel), and his daughter finds comfort (if not social acceptance) in her weekly “salons” with fellow town oddballs Roger (Paul Anderson), Mrs. Bassett (Joan Chodorow), Vernon (understudy Jamie Huntington Fisher), and Rosemary (Amy Huntington).
As for the very young traveling salesman (Derek Chariton) who enters Alma’s life ever so briefly in Eccentricities’ Epilogue, well perhaps Blanche DuBois could have imagined such an encounter, but hardly so Summer And Smoke’s Alma.
All of the above is to say that even if you know Alma 1.0 like the back of your hand, Alma 2.0 is well worth checking out, and with Carter doing absolutely dazzling work, Pacific Resident Theatre’s latest is an absolute must-see.
The affectations, the “little put-on mannerisms,” the stammering, the throat-clutching, the “fantastic high-flown phrases,” the out-of-control laughter, they are all there in Carter’s breathtaking work, but it is the fragility and fear and hunger and hope shining out of Alma’s eyes that make her performance downright unforgettable.
Obermeyer’s alternately imperious and clinging Mrs. Buchanan, Greenquist’s bossy, casually cruel Reverend Winemiller, and Deschanel’s cowed ghost of a wife are winners as well, as are Anderson, Chodorow, Fisher, and Huntington (each in his or her own peculiar way), and recent UCLA grad Chariton shines in his brief cameo.
Eccentricities’ production design could not be more stunning, beginning with scenic designer Kis Knekt’s mossy, lacy surround set, exquisitely lit by Ken Booth. Christopher Moscatiello’s sacred music-based sound design provides a mood-enhancing underscoring throughout. Christine Cover Ferro’s pre-WWI costumes are just right in depicting Alma’s still corseted world.
The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale is produced by Sara Newman-Martins. Marilyn Fox is executive producer and Erica Stewart associate producer. Claire Mazzeo is stage manager. Victoria Pearlman was rehearsal stage manager.
Summer And Smoke may be the better known of Tennessee Williams’ “Alma Chronicles,” but it’s The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale that gives us the richer, sadder, more damaged, and yet ultimately more resilient Alma he intended us to see. Pacific Resident Theatre’s pitch-perfect production could well turn out to be this summer’s most memorable revival.
Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice.
June 25, 2016
Photos: Vitor Martins