A Lovely Sunday For Heartbreak
By MALCOLM JOHNSON
Special to The Courant
April 14 2006
Apart from eccentric moments in "8 by Tenn," the compendium of Tennessee Williams' one acts, Hartford Stage's Michael Wilson has focused mainly on the major works by the poet-playwright from St. Louis. With "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur," Hartford Stage's artistic director devotes a full main stage run to a more rarefied piece that draws together strains from his most familiar works with the more comical and even bizarre late pieces.
The four-character play, which opens today, feels thin at times, and its climax is entirely predictable. There is also a problem with the gargled bursts of German from one of the four women in the cast. Yet thanks to Wilson's lively handling of his ensemble, "Creve Coeur" adds up to a treat, akin to the amusement park picnic promised by the play's jovial and upbeat Bodey, one of two inhabitants of a sunny, homey St. Louis apartment designed by Jeff Cowie.
As played by Carlin Glynn, once the proprietor of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," Bodey comes across as an unusually upbeat Williams woman, who delights in streetcar rides to Creve Coeur, the "electric" park visited by young Thomas Lanier Williams and his sister Rose as children (appropriately enough, the fairground's French name translates as "Broken Heart").
Not surprisingly, heartbreak is one of the main subjects of this late play. Williams' pivotal character, Dorothea, or Dotty, waits in vain for a phone call from the rakish playboy T. Ralph Ellis over the Sunday summer morning. Bodey, her folksy German-American roommate, and the highly affected visitor Helena both know something about Ellis that dotty Dorothea does not - until the play nears its ending.
Compared to "A Streetcar Named Desire," the opening of Wilson's Marathon devoted to Williams, and even to the more obscure "Camino Real," "Creve Coeur" boasts little in the way of a plot. Dotty exercises as she waits to hear that ring, Bodey fries chicken and devils eggs for her picnic and tries to match her brother Buddy up with the uninterested Dotty and the snooty, effete Helena arrives to tempt Dotty with far more chic digs. The fourth character, the overweight downstairs neighbor Miss Gluck, seeks comfort from Bodey for her own heartbreak, the recent death of her adored mother.
As illustrated in the program, which sketches aspects of Tom Williams' boyhood in St. Louis, also the scene of "The Glass Menagerie," "Creve Coeur" too is a memory play. This amounts to its chief fascination, for late in his life, shortly before his early and unnecessary death, Williams looked back on his days at Ben Blewett Junior High School.
Both Dotty and Helena teach at Blewett. Dotty's lowly subject is civics, while the progressive school has entrusted Helena with a far more lofty subject, art history. But more than an early adolescent's imaginary vision of the private lives of his teachers, "Creve Coeur" also sets out the boy-poet's memories of the German-Americans who populated St. Louis, working at the Anheuser-Busch brewery and in countless other factories and business.
Bodey, or Miss Bodenhafer, represents the assimilated German, fluent in both Missouri English and the language of her ancestors. Miss Gluck, or Sophie, speaks some English but in her grief gushes out bursts of German.
"Creve Coeur" unfolds as a character study, centering largely on the romantic dreams of Dotty after her heated dalliance with her demon lover in his Reo Flying Cloud on Art Hill. In some ways, Dotty comes across as a variation on Blanche DuBois, also a teacher.
The marvelous, and eternally young Annalee Jefferies, Wilson's Blanche, does not repeat herself here. It is hard to imagine Blanche indulging in calisthenics, as Jefferies does tirelessly at the start of the production, with much emphasis on hip swivels and other derriere-emphasizing contortions. And, though Blanche was ruined by a love gone wrong, Dotty comes across as a survivor, who manages to escape the temptations of the snake, Helena. The garish carnival music by John Gromada, which opens and closes the intermissionless show, celebrates the joys of Creve Coeur - with a hint of broken hearts as well.
Wilson leaves no doubts that Helena signifies danger for poor Dotty. As airily played by the ultra-thin Joan Van Ark, dressed by David C. Woolard in a tight ivory suit and flat crowned chapeau with long pheasant tails, Helena provides the sharpest moments of pseudo sophistication in "Creve Coeur." She also mirrors Blanche, a clothes horse even in her decline, and nearly as contemptuous of her little sister's place as Helena is of the bright but dowdy rooms shared by Dotty and Bodey. As designed by Cowie, the flat is homey but somewhat chintzy, even a bit tacky.
The former Valene Ewing is obviously out of place in such an environment, and instantly complains of the neighborhood: "it amazed me to discover street after street without a shade tree on it, and the glare, the glare, and the heat refracted by all the brick, concrete, asphalt - was so overpowering that I nearly collapsed."
Helena is an extravagantly written character, but Dotty also shows a sharp wit in the early moments, together with touches of the "colored lights" sensuality of Blanche's deluded sister Stella. Bodey is more down to earth, but also funny at times. As for poor, blubbering Sophie, acted by Jayne Taini in a state of constant disintegration, she speaks of German immigrant life, complete with a ballooning peasant dress provided by Woolard.
"Creve Coeur" covers only a few hours, and Wilson has broken it into several fragments, punctuated by near blackouts from his expressive lighting designer, the admirable Rui Rita. These moments insinuate an edge of darkness into a comedy that sometimes recalls that one-act with a German title from " 8 by Tenn," "The Gnadiges Fraulein." The playwright linked the two as "outrageous" plays, but as its title suggests, "Creve Coeur" is a more sad and subtle piece - tinged with sexual ambiguity in Helena's desire to induct the girlish and innocent civic teacher into a ladies-only bridge-playing circle.