Small Craft Warnings
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
September 23, 2008
Tennessee Williams's not-often produced play from the end of his career is far cruder and its characters more desperate than his more familiar pieces. That isn't to say Williams's characters aren't always desperate, but here he presents people who are utterly at sea. A cast of great actors brings the inhabitants of a dreary bar in southern California to life.
Director Cyndy Marion ensures we don't have too much sympathy for these lonely, empty-feeling characters who disregard others. That is, until they step out of the scene to give eloquent soliloquies that starkly contrast with their more prosaic dialogue in the rest of the play. The device of a dramatic light change really highlights these moments, which indicate a clear difference between the profound poetic suffering inner life, and the outward manifestation of suffering as condescending and cruel.
The most poignant soliloquy comes near the end of Act One, from a character whose presence in the play is quite large considering this moment is truly his only one. Christopher Johnson is riveting as Quentin when he takes a personal moment to reflect on how he has lost the ability to be surprised by anything. His hard, unrelenting stare out toward the audience, along with his fearless consistency of emphasis, elevates the text.
The true major presence in the play is Leona, played by Linda Nelson, who conquers every interaction by refusing to stop talking. Her presence in the play is supposed to be bothersome, so it is no surprise that I found myself relieved during the moments she left the stage. Although often her words blend into a drone of complaints, the indefatigable Nelson confidently swings away in every scene. Leona is an exceptionally difficult role, because although she is one of the only characters in the play who is truly willing and able to care for others, nobody wants to be around her because of her raging badgering.
Leona is constantly playing "Souvenir," a corny violin song, off the jukebox, which usually comes accompanied by Violet, played by Andrea Maulella, stroking the various men of the play under various tables. Violet is an intensely pitiful homeless prostitute, and Maulella really brings out her twitchy, insecure sadness. Monk, played by Graham Anderson, and Doc, played by Patrick Terance McGowan, are also both spot-on. Although they sit back and watch for a good deal of the play, whenever they become involved in the action, the actors play them with intelligence and authenticity.
The set by John C. Scheffler is fantastic: Monk's bar, a wash of dark pale blue, caught in a huge fish net, with liquor bottles dotting the entire space. As a result of the bottles, the metal of the stools, and a large glimmering swordfish over the bar, the blue pale has sparkles of light all over it. Although the (apparently) cardboard jukebox looks a little silly, and when Leona plays music from it she audibly slams a quarter against the top of it, it is the only unrealized part of a beautiful and elaborate conceptual design. There are a number of allusions to the title of the play throughout the script, but this design is what connected me to the idea of isolated vessels lost at sea. But at the same time, these characters seem to be the dregs from the bottom of the ocean, caught in a fish net and lumped arbitrarily together. They could be both things simultaneously, because the inner life of each character is the beautiful yet tragic image of a boat at sea, but their lives in contact with others are like living garbage.
Between the acts, I referred to the playwright as O'Neill by accident, unconsciously associating the fog, liquor, yelling, and desperate longing for escape with Long Day's Journey Into Night. Also, I certainly did not expect to hear references to Ronald Reagan in a Tennessee Williams play.
Small Craft Warnings is a great play for those willing to confront the depths of loneliness. I suggest going with a friend, so you have a hand to hold when the whole world seems like a glimmering sea of emptiness.