The Williams Project Walks into a Bar …
And sets two plays there: Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams and The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. Same creative team led by director Ryan Guzzo Purcell, and the same actors. The Williams Project is not making a big deal out it, but this is repertory theater. Repertory theater is when a company presents two or more shows at the same time with the same actors. The set by designer An-Lin Dauber is your basic bar with a few scatter tables. The action uses the full space so the audience feels like we have landed in a bar and trying to mind our own business. Quite effective.
How much can we guess Williams’s intentions from the title: Small Craft Warnings? As far as revealed during the play, none of the characters own a boat. Most own little more than they can wear. The phrase is used once when one of the characters mentions that it’s a foggy night and the National Weather Service has issued a small craft warning. The official term is “small craft advisory.” The warning, or advisory, is issued to alert small boats that ocean conditions pose a risk.
The title is a pun: the writing itself employs less (or smaller) craft than A Streetcar Named Desire—we are being advised to not expect another Streetcar. Williams opened this play Off-Broadway in 1972 and stepped in to play Doc near the end of the production. The attentions of the commercial theater establishment had abandoned Williams by then and he struggled with feelings of betrayal and loneliness.
Everyone in this play is emotionally adrift in search of a safe harbor. They won’t find it in this bar on the California coast on a foggy night. By the end of the play many dash off in wild directions with little hopes of better luck because each in their own way are poor captains of themselves.
The opening scenes finds Monk (Lee LeBarton), Doc (Max Rosenak), and Violet (Madeleine Lambert) in a seaside bar in San Diego. Monk, the bar owner, sleeps upstairs and wants a low key place with regulars he knows with regular tastes and habits. On that premise on his premises we know Monk is adrift in the head: bars are by nature unpredictable settings where a random mix of people gather to enact the drama of their conscious and unconscious desires. People drink in bars, making them even less regular and stable in their behavior. Monk/LeBarton had his hands full all evening. He knew he was in for a challenge when he noticed Violet had arrived with her tattered, taped together, luggage. Doc points out that he thinks Violet is angling to join Monk upstairs.
Doc once was a legit doctor; got himself de-licensed for working while drunk. All of these people are living while drunk. Living though the fog of emotions and thinking alcohol induces. Living dulled to life.
Violet lived by exchanging sex for lodging and food. Hustling. Bill (Richard Prioleau) saunters into the bar to await his meal ticket, Leona, to get off work. He, too lived by exchanging sex for room and board. Hustling. Violet, perhaps not understanding or caring just how poor Bill is, soon joins him and lets her hands do her talking under the table.
Dynamically played by Kemiyondo Coutinho, Leona is a beautician who has let Bill into her life and trailer. She walks in and catches Violet and Bill making out. Storm warnings! Her reaction sets in motion the action in the rest of the play.
In the middle of this storm walk Quentin (Grant Chapman), a screenwriter, and Bobby (Lamar Legend) a youth from Iowa. Monk is quick to see they are a gay pair and unbidden invites them to keep moving on to the known gay bar down the coast. No effect, they stay. Bobby’s home state of Iowa gives Williams license to give Leona and Quentin a few tired gay jokes like “so you’re from Iowa where the corn blows, I mean, grows.” We’ve been warned.
Rounding out the cast of eight is Steve (Dedra D. Woods), a seaside cook and Violet’s current sugar daddy.
Williams, then a 74 year old master playwright, naturally plays with the craft of writing. Many reviewer overlook a key detail: this play is an expansion of an shorter play called Confessional. That holds a clue to what Williams was really up to: less the demonstration of eight ways to be drunk, but more delving into what might each of the people confess about themselves. Indeed, as the drama plays out, each finds a moment to fess up a bit.
Maybe Williams missed his timing; since 1972 the confession market has taken off. Look at the popularity of The Moth and sales of memoirs. As a playwright, then, Williams’s game was devising clever ways for each character to come clean without drawing direct attention to it as memoirs do. He succeeded brilliantly. To appreciate how well he does, watch for monologues, soliloquies, and asides. A monologue is an actor addressing the other actors and ignoring the audience. They speak longer than usual. A soliloquy is a character thinking out loud, usually alone. The famous example is Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” ramblings. An aside is when the actor looks past the imaginary fourth wall separating the stage action from the audience and talks directly to the audience.
Sometimes a character begins with a monologue and slides into an aside while the other players pantomime their confession. Each confession is a variation on the theme of loneliness.
Good craft, professional acting, excellent direction. If you’re not expecting another Streetcar it’s an insightful evening of theater.
Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell. Produced by The Williams Project. Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission. Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave, Central District. Various evening and matinee times. Ticket info: http://www.thewilliamsproject.org/tickets. All performances pay-what-you-can. Performed in rotation with The Time of your Life by William Saroyan. Closes August 25.