Small Craft Warnings
nytheatre.com review by Leslie Bramm
February 18, 2011
A series of monologues and meanderings, Tennessee Williams's play Small Craft Warnings is tied together by the desperate sense of loneliness all his characters share. Written in 1972, after previous decades that were arguably his more prolific, in this play we don't get "the" Tennessee Williams, per se, but more what's left of a great poet. Mother of Invention uses the Studio Theatre in the Theatre Row Complex and Austin Pendleton directs.
Early in the text, the character Leona says, "If you're not depressed, then you're not conscious." This sets the tone immediately. While there are many poetic observations, a sad overview of homosexuality, the death of children, drunkenness, and hopelessness, perhaps the monologue that affected me the most profoundly belonged to the character Quentin. He speaks of an older man's worst fear—that a genuine capacity to be “surprised by life” is replaced with a dulled-down feeling of "oh well." We become jaded and cynical from experience until life loses its sense of wonder. That childlike fascination, curiosity, with life is no longer even an option.
The play is set at Monk's Tavern, seaside in Southern California. A group of locals have come to imbibe and bare their souls. Leona is mourning her dead brother on this day, and she drinks herself into a nasty rave. She moves from patron to patron, dissecting their flaws, and forcing them to see truths about the selves they've gathered together to drown. The play takes place in roughly a three-hour time period in which Leona and the other patrons get us ugly as the drink inspires. At times their utter viciousness becomes a kind of compassion, even support mechanism. The play has a dreamy feel, and is rich with emotional complexities. A loose plot ties the action together, but I don’t think plot was William’s driving force to write this. The text gives us glimmers of the language we expect from this master, and the wisdom of a man who has seen much. Too much?
The play’s strength resides in the actors' abilities to convey these emotions and handle difficult language. All do a first rate job. Gina Stahlnecker's Leona is at once cruel, as she is kind. Stahlnecker's performance is right on the money. Violet is literally a faded flower who still manages to use her sexuality to get by in life. She is numb to sex and seeks love. Tammy Lang is excellent. She is able to mute her natural beauty, and evokes a sense of pathos from the audience.
Bill, skillfully played by Joe Ulam, is Leona's live-in stud. Ulam portrays him with false bravado, and a sense of masculinity on the wane. John Greenleaf is creepy as Doc, a shaky-handed quack who performs trailer park abortions. Steve, perhaps the most underdeveloped of the play's eight characters, is handled nicely by Eddy Lee Priest. He conveys a degree of male humiliation, and allows it to affect his entire body. Monk, the bartender, is a stalwart force with simple ambitions. Ross Kramberg plays him with confidence. Kramberg has a commanding voice and knows how to use it.
Quentin and Bobby are the two non-regulars—an old queen with a penchant for straight boys, and his young gay lover. Bobby is the only symbol of potential and hope in the play. Adam Dodway is believably naive, and conveys a spirited sadness. He also poses a renaissance kind of beauty, which works in contrast to the grizzled and scrappy faces of all the older men. Quentin is performed by Austin Pendleton. Pendleton is a treasure of the American Theatre and one of its last mavericks. Why would he not act and direct? His direction is akin to the set, the studio, the play itself—stark. All this serves the play well, and the choice of having the audience on stage, and the cast on the risers, is very effective (notwithstanding the uncomfortable chairs). Mother of Invention does a good job with this play and should be given kudos for taking on a lesser known work, by a major playwright.