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Krista Lambden and John Gazzale
in Spring Storm
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
In the program note for Tennessee Williams's Spring Storm, dramaturge Jessica Neumann recounts E. C. Mabie's reaction to the student play. Mabie, whose name suggests uncertainty though the man apparently was anything but uncertain, headed the University of Iowa theater department where Williams entered in 1937 when he was -- determined to leave selling shoes behind and find his vocation. Recalling the Spring Storm reading years later, Williams wrote that Mabie listened to the play, which ended in that version with a woman completely disrobing, and said dismissively, "Well, we all have to paint our nudes."

The temptation in 2004, with Williams an undisputed great 20th-century American playwright, is to regard Mabie's response with condescension and smiling superiority. Anyway, that's the temptation before the lights go up on the heated young man's mellerdrama. The temptation when the lights fade to final black -- and lighting designer Josh Bradford and sound designer David Pinkard have had a field day creating incessant literal and symbolic spring storms -- is to compliment Professor Mabie on his restraint. His reaction was undoubtedly that of a man who'd heard many overwrought scripts read by fervent, unformed dramatists and knew how to keep amusement and frustration to himself. He serves as a model of what to do in like circumstances.

Someone else in the same position -- such as anyone sitting through a production of the recently rediscovered work -- might be moved to hoot at Williams's jejune outpourings. Though come to think of it, no one in the Lobo Theatre audience with me was less than but Mabie-polite as they watched headstrong Heavenly Critchfield (Krista Lambden) shuffle between two ardent suitors, Dick Miles (Joe B. McCarthy) and Arthur Shannon (John Gazzale), while an especially inclement Port Tyler, Mississippi April spat liberally on the agitated locals. Strong, sexy Dick is a lower-class fellow with a wanderlust, and besotted, shy Arthur comes from the money the Critchfields had but lost in the 1929 stock market crash.

Heavenly's mother Esmeralda (Elizabeth Kemp) is predictably pressing the Shannon boy on her rebellious daughter, while father Oliver (David Gideon) remains neutral and Aunt Lila (Carlin Glynn) -- who believes cigarettes and whiskey resolve most crises -- tends to agree but primarily because she knows there's gumption lurking in that timorous rich kid. Not plugging for Heavenly to align herself with Arthur is plain librarian Hertha Neilson (Kristen Cerelli), who's been infatuated with Arthur since they were children and is eventually putty in his hands when he turns up at the library one late afternoon and forces himself on her before forcing her off him.

The four youngsters express their ardor at various Port Tyler locales, including a ball in which someone leaves a cake out in the rain (foreshadowing Jimmy Webb rather than later Williams). The lovers quartet carry on pairing off in the sight of conventional church ladies who take a decidedly censorious view of Heavenly's behavior, especially her sneaking off with Dick to a roadside cabin. But no one is more distressed than Esmeralda, who at the prospect of Heavenly running off with that Miles lad sees her world toppling. She's so distraught that at one point she lets down her carefully coiffed tresses and raises her arms in supplication before the painting of a Civil War ancestor hanging in set designer Shawn Lewis's version of a genteel Southern parlor.

While there are no scenes that quite have the unintended humor of Esmeralda's moment of private disgrace, there are others that elicit the same kind of unwanted astonishment. Arthur's seduction of Hertha (a name meant to suggest earth-a, as opposed to Heavenly?) among the unshelved books is laughingly histrionic, and the garden party where Dick and Arthur put up their dukes over Heavenly is also memorably overwrought. During that sequence, three snobs do the standard put-down-the-fast-girl dialogue. Worth a titter or three is almost any scene in which the four lovers allow their hormones to rage along with the elements.

The reason to see Spring Storm -- that's assuming there is a reason to see it -- is to locate inklings of what was to come in Williams's writing when he shed the verbal baby fat and developed the muscular lyricism at which he is the undisputed American master. (The exercise in retrospection was, of course, not available to venerable E. C. Mabie, who couldn't have known that Williams's late adolescent -- he was 26 and still Tom -- maundering was the work of someone who would eventually find a way to extrude art from school-girlish longings.) Yes, there is some compensation in picking up on intimations of what was to come, even if dramaturge Neumann comments that Williams "never returned to Spring Storm to revise and revive it, as he did with countless other scripts."

Joe B. McCarthy in Spring Storm
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Actually, Williams may not have returned to revise and revive it, but there are indications he returned to it often in later work -- much more so than he went back to Not About Nightingales, the ripped-from-the-headlines play he wrote about the same time. For instance, Heaven Critchfield is very like Heavenly Finney, the rich man's wanton daughter in Sweet Bird of Youth. Dick Miles, who's discovered gazing at the river and wanting to follow it wherever its flowing, is a precursor of the Williams men who fall in love with long distance and/or have the kind of animal instincts woman of supposedly more refined tastes cotton to. He's an early draft, that is, for Stanley Kowalski, Chance Wayne, and the like. (Not to mention William Inge's rip-off Lotharios.) Arthur Shannon lends his name to defrocked T. Lawrence Shannon in The Night of the Iguana and may be Williams's depiction of what Arthur Shannon became after abandoning Tyler Port. Esmeralda is a name he uses again, as in Something Unspoken, and Esmeralda's grief over losing the comfort of her past is pre-Blanche DuBois and even pre-Amanda Wingfield material. (Hey, who's noticed Amanda Wingfield and Alma Winemiller sound awfully similar?) Oliver Critchfield's illness, called nothing more than stomach disturbance by a quack physician, is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof fodder. But how could E. C. Mabie, perspicacious as he evidently was, know any of this and differentiate it from the other earnest pap his perhaps less talented students were scribbling.

It isn't the task of Coy Middleton, who directed this New York premiere, to acknowledge the play's ineptitude. He had to act as if it's as golden as A Streetcar Named Desire or even up to the level of The Seven Descents of Myrtle. Perhaps he might have played down the hysteria among his four leads, but perhaps not. Given the text, what else does a director do? That may explain why Krista Lambden as the devil-may-care Heavenly makes going over the top her goal and reaches it. On the other hand, Kristen Cerelli manages to turn the unfortunately named Hertha into a real human being. And some of the others modeling costume designer Theresa Squire's fluttery period clothes -- Carlin Glynn, John Gazzale, Joe B. McCarthy, among them -- come out relatively unscathed.

Spring Storm starts and ends with readings from T. S. Eliot's "Waste Land." That's the one that contends "April is the Cruelest Month," the phrase Williams originally planned to use as the play's title. But with Spring Storm arriving during the month of May, it might be said the cruelty has yet to let up.

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