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The Eccentricities of a Nightingale

Mary Bacon gives a superb performance in Tennessee Williams' superior reworking of Summer and Smoke.

Mary Bacon and Todd Gearhart in
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
(© Stephen Kunken)
Alma Winemiller is such a nervous bird that her father sits her down to criticize the compulsive "gestures and facial expressions" she makes singing at Glorious Hill, Mississippi holiday functions. As an upstanding community rector and concerned parent, he believes he must report that neighbors regularly mock Alma's inclination to "get carried away with the emotions of your singing -- that's why you choke sometimes and get hoarse." The fact that Alma is such an irritating presence is not only the perverse victory of her creator, Tennessee Williams, but also has everything to do with Mary Bacon's performance in The Actors Company Theatre production of Williams' 1955 play The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, now at The Clurman Theatre.

Clutching her throat and spinning a ring on a finger and running her dialogue up and down the scales, Bacon fulfills every irritating requirement of the role -- thereby insuring that the production, which has been directed by Jenn Thompson with sympathetic perception and designed by Bill Clarke with the right balance of realism and surrealism, is must viewing for anyone who cares about Williams' exalted position in American theater literature. As Williams scholars know, Eccentricities is a radical rewrite of the playwright's 1947 Summer and Smoke, and he considered the outcome not only an improvement -- but equal to his best work.

Occasionally reminding acquaintances that Alma is Spanish for "soul," the patience-challenging young woman sees herself and a few other misfit chums as the true champions of local culture. But Williams -- who always had a soft spot in his heart for self-deluding women -- has Alma channel her sexual longings into the effete social activities as compensation for not snaring the heart of next-door neighbor, Dr. John Buchanan Jr. (Todd Gearhart). It's the sometime brooding but basically good Buchanan who sizes up Alma's pose enough to deem her "gallant" when his vigilant mother (Darrie Lawrence) chides him for the interest he shows.

Everything Williams includes in his narrative -- such as her having constantly to supervise a mentally disturbed mother (Nora Chester) -- leads up to the throttling sequence in which Buchanan allows Alma to lure him to a honky-tonk hotel room so he can confront her with the facts of her self-involved life. The passage, which ranks with the most affecting in Williams' canon, is a model of profound psychological understanding. What emerges is a transcendent love scene between two people who realize they're not in love and can't be, but are still ineluctably bonded. "This affliction of love" is how Alma puts it in one of the play's traffic-stopping poetic phrases.

Williams' humane intentions are realized not only in Bacon's acting but in Gearhart's, whose Buchanan is a handsome devil less impressed by his own good looks than by a truth in Alma that goes deeper than her outwardly abrasive traits. If anything mars Gearhart's portrayal, it's a snag he encounters fully conveying Buchanan's despair at not being able to plumb a repressed truth in himself; a fault that also may lie in Williams' writing of the scene.

In a company where the actors taking on supporting assignments have mastered small-town rhythms, the standouts are Larry Keith, who doesn't turn Reverend Winemiller into a religious ogre; Chester, whose angry and dithering mother isn't a cartoon of mental disturbance; and Lawrence, who confidently walks the line between domineering and rightfully concerned.

Some experts maintain that Williams' eventual success with Alma occurred because, as a constant searcher of his own soul, he'd become better acquainted with the Alma inside himself. Regardless, it's not just Williams but Bacon, Thompson, and their sensitive colleagues that make this Eccentricities commandingly eccentric.

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