Five by Tenn

by MICHAEL KUCHWARA, AP Drama Critic. Associated Press. New York: Apr 23, 2004

WASHINGTON (AP) _ "My characters make my plays," says a genteel, almost courtly Tennessee Williams at the beginning of "Five by Tenn," now on view in the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Well, yes. We wouldn't expect anything less from the author of "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

This new evening is a collection of diverse one-acts offering a parade of mostly unknown Williams creations, folks who are close relatives, kissin' cousins of Blanche Du Bois, Stanley Kowalski, Amanda Wingfield and more. The resemblances are startling, yet understandable and fascinating to discover for the first time.

We're at the beginning of "Tennessee Williams Explored," a nearly four-month look by the Center of one of America's greatest playwrights. This first effort, though, is the work of another of Washington's essential cultural institutions, the Shakespeare Theatre.

Its artistic director, Michael Kahn, has put together and directed the program, which includes five plays, four of them world premieres. Presented in the order in which they were written, they show the development of a remarkable playwright.

Williams, portrayed with a sly grin by actor Jeremy Lawrence, serves as a tour guide for the plays. He announces the titles, sets the scenes and then discreetly disappears.

The earliest work, "These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch," is also the crudest dramatically. It's a coming-of-age tale, the story of innocence lost. A young man finds employment as an usher in a decrepit, third-rate movie palace. His job in the lobby is to prevent patrons, seedy or otherwise, from climbing to the theater's upper floors for possible illicit goings-on.

The youth (played with sweet desperation by Hunter Gilmore) takes his job seriously. Snippets of hokey movie dialogue can be heard through the auditorium doors as assorted moviegoers try to scurry up those forbidden stairs. But our young man stands steadfast at his post.

In "Escape," we meet more familiar Williams characters _ domineering mother and sensitive son. It's summer at the lake and a distraught Mrs. Fenway has to cope not only with the heat and her unhappy child but the fact that she may have to get a job now that she and her husband have separated.

A marvelous Joan van Ark plays the neurotic woman with the right amount of steely indecision _ tough and vulnerable at the same time. She's Amanda Wingfield by way of Blanche Du Bois. Her offspring (Cameron Folmar) quietly plots his way out of her suffocating presence, a disturbing exit that brings the play to a horrifying conclusion.

Folmar gets to be showier in the third play, "And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens ..." As Candy Delaney, a man "uncomfortably close to his 35th birthday," Folmar portrays a drag queen looking for love. Unfortunately, he settles for a piece of rough trade, a sailor who could be Stanley Kowalski's evil twin (Myk Watford).

"Queens" is funny and even touching, and though the melodramatic ending may be predictable, the acting is not. And Candy, particularly in Folmar's winning and extravagant recreation, ranks right up there with the playwright's most vivid characters.

"The Municipal Abattoir" is the evening's slightest _ and shortest offering. An opaque political vignette, the play focuses on a student attempting an assassination at a government parade. He's interrupted by a sad little man who asks for directions to a government slaughterhouse. The stranger is doomed but can't do anything about it.

"I Can't Imagine Tomorrow," seen on public television more than 30 years ago, concludes the evening. It's an elliptical piece, mysterious and a bit puzzling but acted with conviction by Thomas Jay Ryan and a radiant Kathleen Chalfant.

It's Williams meets Harold Pinter with a dash of Samuel Beckett thrown in for good measure. Chalfant portrays a gallant woman who appears to be dying _ on her way to what she calls "the Dragon Country" _ but who refuses to give up.

Ryan plays a school teacher, ready to emotionally and physically collapse. In the end, though, these two cling to each other, reaching a gentle accommodation. The language is terse yet oddly poetic and comforting as these unlikely companions face the future together.

"Five by Tenn" runs through May 9.

Next up for "Tennessee Williams Explored" is "A Streetcar Named Desire," starring Patricia Clarkson as Blanche Du Bois and Adam Rothenberg as Stanley Kowalski. It runs May 8-May 30 at the Center's Eisenhower Theater.

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People:   Du Bois, Blanche,  Kowalski, Stanley,  Folmar, Cameron