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Diane Sutherland and Taina Elg
in "Memory of Summer"
(Photo: Heidi Grunner)
William Inge, the object of many scornful chuckles since his death in 1973, is getting a tender tribute in Requiem for William. Transport Group co-founder Jack Cummings III is probably the one with the soft spot in his heart for the playwright: He's credited as having conceived and directed the seven short plays that comprise most of the intermissionless, two-hour-plus homage to Independence, Kansas's favorite troubled son. Cummings undoubtedly is also the one who chose to link the playlets with original songs keyed to Inge's motifs, as well as voice-over snippets from the author's full-length plays.

The result is an intriguing balance between appreciating a man with substantial dramaturgical talent and recognizing that said talent rarely rose to the level of genius. In other words, this autumnal celebration nods respectfully to the man whose Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, and Dark at the Top of the Stairs -- all presented and acclaimed in the 1950s -- are solidly enduring dramas that shed burnished light on the malaise that seeped through a supposedly placid period of American history.

The strongest entry in Requiem for William is "The Strains of the Triumph." While an old man (Tom Ligon) watches a track and field event from a distant hill, Tom (Mark Ledbetter) and Ann (Nicole Alifante) steal a few minutes to declare their love and its accompanying unpleasantness, since their liaison comes at the expense of Ann's relationship with Ben. The latter (James Weber) arrives and despairs; both Tom and Ben are runners, but Ben declares he'll never run again. That's when the old man steps over to provide pertinent insights into youth and recovery. Nothing is cut and dried, which is the work's strength. Bittersweet, it resolutely retains its ambiguities about the proper time to run or not.

The other pieces are more checkered. In "Memory of Summer," Viola (Diane Sutherland), a disturbed woman past her youth, bemoans her lot on the beach. Only reluctantly succumbing to the warnings of her attendant (Taina Elg) and a fresh-faced Coast Guard man (Sean McLaughlin), Viola eventually accepts the end of summer. The second-hand epiphanies of this vignette are a clear example of one of Inge's problems: Befriended early on by Tennessee Williams, he never quite strode confidently out of that man's shadow. It often seemed as if Inge believed that Williams had all the right playwriting formulas and that all Inge needed to do was rework them.

In "Memory of Summer," there are reverberating echoes of A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer. The Williams emblem in "The Boy in the Basement" is the domineering mother, Mrs. Scranton (Marni Nixon). She has all but silenced her husband (Michael Shelle), an undertaker and stroke victim, and driven her Mama's boy son Spencer (Joseph Kolinski) to acting upon his homosexual longings in a nearby town. As anyone versed in Williams-Inge themes will guess before long, Spencer has a crush on this play's young man, the eager Joker Evans (Matt Yaeger). The most intriguing aspect of the work is how Inge eerily predates Six Feet Under, in which another gay mortuary operator contends with an obtuse mom.

In "The Tiny Closet," the man with something to hide is Mr. Newbold (John Wellmann). Neither new nor bold, he's a prissy fellow who has locked something in the closet of the room he rents from the prying, Commie-fearing Mrs. Crosby (Toni diBuono). Pressing her neighbor Mrs. Hergesheimer (Cheryl Stern) into helping her, Mrs. Crosby picks the lock and discovers the millinery that Mr. Newbold keeps there. Mr. N., having sneaked back to the house and realizing that he's been found out, dons the hat that Mrs. Crosby has tried on and then collapses. (Inge certainly had a thing about men with secrets and the women determined to find them out.)

Richard Martin, Jonathan Uffelman, Monica Russell,
Tina Johnson, Shannon Polly and Holland Haiis
in "To Bobolink, For Her Spirit"
(Photo: Heidi Grunner)
The three remaining baubles that Cummings includes in Requiem for William have their humorous aspects, although their drollery marks them more as comedy sketches than plays. In "The Rainy Afternoon," three children (Samantha Jumper, Katie Sharf, and Michael Mags) repair to a barn and play house as Inge makes the point that parents with questionable values and bad habits pass those values on to their offspring; there are genuine chills here amidst the laughs. In "To Bobolink, for Her Spirit," Manhattan autograph hounds compare notes about whom they've buttonholed. One of them, Bobolink Brown (Tina Johnson), is especially unpleasant. (Hoo-boy, misogyny runs rampant through Inge's works, despite the love he exhibits in other plays for his sister -- another bond he has with Williams.) In the closing segment, "A Social Event," a female and male starlet (Transport Group co-founder Robyn Hussa and Dean Alai), both of whom appear briefly in "To Bobolink...," have not been invited to the funeral of a genuine star and are can't figure out why until Muriel (Lovette George), their black cook, speaks up. In a word, it's fluff.

In some ways, the trimmings with which Cummings and creative team adorn Requiem for William confirm its validity as a sincere tribute. Set designer John Story has scattered red and gold leaves across the stage and over the lip and initially throws a handsome chiaroscuro photograph of the playwright on the upstage screen where other evocative images are subsequently projected throughout the plays. Lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy enhances the light-and-shadow motif running through Inge's work, and sound designer Seth Guterman helps to establish the tenebrous undercurrents. (With Inge, there's literal and figurative darkness at the top of all stairs.) Kathleen Rohe outfits the cast in '50s outfits that couldn't seem more authentic -- there are fedoras, calf-length skirts with crinolines, and multiple pairs of saddle oxfords.

Just about everyone in the 26-member ensemble acquits him- or herself nimbly; among the standouts are Ligon, Johnson, diBuono, Elg, Sutherland, MacLaughlin, Kolinski, Nixon, and Matt Yaeger. The tunesmiths requested to each write a song about a theme in the play they were assigned have, for the most part, merely ham-handedly reiterated the play's message, but Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Leslie Becker came up with something beautiful in "Running." Michael John LaChiusa, too, has delivered a moving number in "How Much Love," sung by Lovette George at the beginning of the show and reprised by the entire cast at the end.

The implication is that the evening is about the uses and abuses of love, which could be said about anything ever written. The love shown here is for Inge, and Cummings expresses it best when the cast assembles for that final rendition of LaChiusa's anthem. Dressed in black and poised on stage as representatives of Inge's world, they remind the audience that Requiem for William is meant simultaneously to praise, bury, and resurrect William Inge. Cummings achieves his commendable aim.

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