Jennifer Harmon and Annalee Jefferiesin Something Unspoken(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Jennifer Harmon and Annalee Jefferies
in Something Unspoken
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Here's the cleverest title of the season. 8 by Tenn doesn't describe the headshots of the nine performers that the Hartford Stage Company is currently employing. Instead, it represents the eight one-act plays by Tennessee Williams that the theater has chosen to open its 40th anniversary season.

The decision to stage Williams won't come as a surprise to those who follow Hartford Stage. Starting in 1998, artistic director Michael Wilson has made a concerted effort to revitalize the reputation of a man who was one of America's most esteemed playwrights from the late '40s through the early '60s. But the 26 plays that Williams wrote from the late '60s to the early '80s -- most of them one-acters -- hurt that reputation. Wilson thinks the canon deserves another look and, over the last five years, he's already offered 24 of Williams's works. He's staged all eight in the current batch.

8 by Tenn is split into two evenings of four one-act plays. One is called The Rose Program while the other is The Blue Program. Each offers three short one acts before intermission and a single, hour-long one act afterwards. The Blue Program contains plays that have all been seen before while The Rose boasts three premieres. Why were these colors chosen, you ask? Darned if I know. In the Blue Program's Something Unspoken, a rose appears on a table. The Rose Program's Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws is asterisked "This play contains strong language" -- so shouldn't it be in the Blue Program? At least The One Exception, in the Rose Program, seems correctly positioned, for its main character does resemble Williams's troubled sister Rose.

Now, when you enter a theater that hosts eight disparate one-acters, what kind of set do you expect to see? Certainly not a warehouse with shelves full of boxes. But that's a masterstroke, for Wilson opens each evening with workers scurrying about before he centers on an actor (uncredited in the program) who looks like a young, mustachioed Tennessee Williams. The kid appears terminally bored and doesn't seem to believe that There's No Business Like Shoe Business. But, while going through boxes, he occasionally comes across a fanciful pair of shoes that makes him wonder what type of person would wear them. He then puts them down and starts writing -- as a performer enters and literally fills those shoes.

In the first entry of The Blue Program, the performer is Elizabeth Ashley (with whom Wilson has often worked here, as well as on Broadway in the recent Enchanted April). The play's title, The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, is what the character is branded by her landlady -- played with extraordinary venom by Denny Dillon, a performer not known for gravitas. The lotion is used to kill vermin, which have nothing to do with the type of lady that Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore claims to be; she keeps talking about her interest in a Brazilian rubber plantation. Written in 1941, the play does presage Blanche DuBois, down to the shade she wants to put on a naked light bulb. When a fight about back rent becomes ornery, a character called The Writer comes in and gives the landlady hell, then sits and dutifully listens to each of the lady's fantasies. He offers the kindness of strangers.

Elizabeth Ashley, Denny Dillon,and Amanda Plummer inThe Gnädiges Fräulein(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Elizabeth Ashley, Denny Dillon,
and Amanda Plummer in
The Gnädiges Fräulein
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
In Something Unspoken, Miss Cornelia Scott is on the phone, canceling her subscription to a magazine -- making one hope that Amanda Wingfield isn't on the other end of the line. Cornelia is concerned about her chance for re-election in today's vote that will decide who will be regent of the Confederate Daughters. When she loses to someone else, she remarks that "Nothing succeeds like mediocrity." Yet the real thrust of the play is whether or not the lady can summon up the courage to tell her longtime secretary that she is in love with her. She cannot, as would most often be the case in 1954, when Williams wrote the work.

How many plays have we all seen where the tension is building only to be interrupted by a phone ringing? This happens in Something Unspoken just as Jennifer Harmon's Cornelia is ready to pour out her soul to Annalee Jeffries's all-business assistant. But, somehow, Wilson directs the moment splendidly enough to make the ringing phone alarming.

Both of the above seem like Tennessee Williams plays, but the next one doesn't. The Chalky White Substance (1980) takes place "100 years after a thermonuclear war." The few people left are living in a vast wasteland. The substance of the title -- nuclear dust -- falls on Mark, an elderly man, who's paternal towards twentysomething Luke. Or maybe it's more than that, for Mark can't keep his hands off the lad. Nevertheless, when Luke says that he's found an underground water spring and hasn't reported it -- as the law demands -- Mark matter-of-factly decides to turn him in for the reward. Love and lust, says Williams, can only go far in troubled times.

After the interval comes The Gnädiges Fräulein (Translation: The Merciful Lady), which was the second half of Slapstick Tragedy, Williams's 1966 fiasco that lasted all of a week at the Longacre. It's not a great play but it does show that Williams attempted to write in another style, one that mixed absurdism with vaudeville -- prompting Wilson to punctuate the action with a circus slide whistle and '50s sitcom music. Polly (Amanda Plummer) comes in wearing stockings in the style of the Wicked Witch of the East, as well as bloomers that she shows quite often. Polly says she's the ultimate gossip columnist in not the United States but the United Mistakes -- even though she works out of the small Florida town of Cocaloony Key (West, I presume). She goes to a guest cottage where landlady Molly (Ashley) says that she'll give her "material for the God-darnest human and inhuman interest story" involving The Gnädiges Fräulein (Dillon), who's had one of her eyes shot out and will soon have the same thing happen to the other. When that occurs, Molly says, "Her vision is zero-zero." The Fräulein then sings Irving Berlin's "All Alone," causing Molly to note that "She lacks a little in the top register." About the Fraulein's clothes, Molly adds, "her taste in lingerie seems to be influenced by the Ringling Brothers." These lines are a good fit for Ashley, who doesn't have just a Cheshire Cat smile but a Cheshire Cat face, too. Although the play itself is not terribly successful, I was glad to give it my forbearance and see Williams's attempt to stretch himself.

Kevin Geer and Curtis Billingsin The Palooka(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Kevin Geer and Curtis Billings
in The Palooka
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
The Rose program starts with The Palooka (1937), about a worn out 38-year-old boxer and a young lad on his way up. Five to ten years ago, says the veteran, he was the fan's favorite, but now they want to see him kayoed. When it's his turn to enter the ring, actor Kevin Geer makes an impression as he walks off for he already looks like a dead man. But Williams has an O. Henry-like twist in store. Sure, the surprise ending is often a young writer's solution -- Williams was 26 at the time -- but everybody has to go through stages like that.

The title character of Portrait of a Madonna, a 1940 work that is the only non-premiere of the Rose Program, is Miss Lucretia Collins, who hasn't allowed anyone into her apartment for 25 years. Now she's to be evicted, which makes the building's aging porter sad (Helmar Augustus Cooper has a lovely hat-in-hand deference), but the elevator boy is all for giving Lucretia a quick boot. When the doctor and nurse arrive to take her to an asylum, one can see the roots of the famous concluding scene of A Streetcar Named Desire.

The One Exception (1983; Williams's last known work), also involves a mentally unbalanced person, but it's what Amanda Plummer does -- wordlessly -- at the end of the play that truly astonishes. She's alone on stage, trying to stand. She feels unsteady and so she decides to sit down, but it takes her more than a minute to get into the chair. How eerie it is to watch this poor, broken child trying to sit. She gets close to the seat but feels that she's not doing it right, so she gets up, starts again, and winds up doing worse than before. So she starts again. Bravo to Wilson and brava to Plummer for a haunting experience unlike any I've ever seen in all my years of theatergoing. Whatever Williams's stage directions are for this moment, I daresay that he would be pleased by the work of these two.

Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws also has its roots in absurdism -- or so we think when Madge shows up in a restaurant with an enormous stuffed rabbit, but it turns out to be a present she bought for a kid. Just when we settle in and expect something naturalistic, the woman starts simulating sex with the rabbit. Bea, her dining companion, starts talking, but these two ladies who lunch don't much listen to each other.

Jennifer Harmon and Annalee Jefferies inNow the Cats with Jewelled Claws(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Jennifer Harmon and Annalee Jefferies in
Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Two motorcycle boys enter, and there is some sexual tension between them and the women. One takes the opportunity to mention that "the word 'hysteria' is derived from the Greek word for the female organ." And that's when the play abruptly becomes a musical. No, Williams didn't write the music -- that's the work of Fitz Patton -- but the playwright did provide the lyrics. The song turns into something reminiscent of Marat/Sade, and while the play isn't ultimately satisfying, I again wound up feeling that seeing a Williams experiment was worth the trip.

Very much present is that distinctive Williams language, full of grandiose yet poetic words and images. The Writer in The Lady of Larkspur Lotion mentions "The cruel deficiencies of reality." Add to that "I have never been mollified by a conciliatory reply" and "My garden will not be open to pilgrims this spring" (Miss Cornelia Scott, Something Unspoken), "Sentiment is not the cornerstone of my nature" (Molly, The Gnadiges Fraulein), and "I'm always a little malarial this time of year" (Miss Lucretia Collins, Portrait of a Madonna). Lines such as these made me think that if I had to rank 8 by Tenn on a 1-to-10 scale, I'd rate both Rose and Blue somewhere between an 8 and a 10.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]