A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Reviewed By: Sandy MacDonald

    Who knew that Joan van Ark had such stage presence? Probably not the TV fans who followed her soap-operatic vicissitudes as Valene Ewing on Dallas and Knots Landing. We've all discovered the hard way that a big name from the little screen doesn't always belong on the boards, but Van Ark is a live-theater pro from way back; she studied at Yale Drama School and made her Broadway debut in the original Barefoot in the Park. So one shouldn't be surprised that the Hartford Stage production of Tennessee Williams's would-be comedic 1978 one-act A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur suddenly picks up steam when van Ark bursts into a hovel of a Depression-era St. Louis apartment and begins picking apart what passes for the good life in this socioeconomic stratum.

    It's not just that her character, Helena -- a soignée vision in pale pink full of high-and-mighty airs, conjuring shades of Blanche DuBois -- is the catalyst at the heart of this rather anemic, late-career work. Van Ark plays the part with such deliciously delicate, incisive bitchiness that it becomes easy to overlook the sketchiness of the plot and the dramatis personae.

    When we first encounter Dorothea (Annalee Jefferies), she's dutifully performing her daily calisthenics while awaiting a phone call from one T. Ralph Ellis, the principal at the school where she teaches. She boasts to her lumpen roommate Bodey (Carlin Glynn) that her engagement to Mr. E. is imminent; Dorothea has already given herself "not just freely but with abandon, with joy" to him in his Rio roadster. Bodey, who has come to terms with her own limited prospects, has another future in mind for Dorothea; she has been plotting to fix her up with Bodey's portly twin brother Buddy so that they all can live happily ever after, ideally with offspring.

    Somewhat deaf and very dense, Bodey also tends to the needs of downstairs neighbor Miss Gluck (Jayne Taini), a middle-aged fraulein felled by chronic depression over the loss of her beloved mother. Here's where the comedy element falters: What fun is it to watch a morose blubberer? Setting this sad, bathrobed basket-case up against the comme-il-faut fascist Helena only makes for humor that's crude and cruel. Bodey, blessed with a good heart despite her awkward machinations and lower-class stigmata, is a much fairer match for Helena. Indeed, the play's most vivid passages have the two battling for possession of Dorothea's soul.

    Glynn's performance is marred somewhat by peculiar breathing patterns; she'll pause mid-sentence, even mid-word, to refuel. This may be meant to reflect the character's deafness, but her herky-jerky speech is distracting. So are some of Rui Rita's lighting cues, though Jeff Cowie's set and David C. Woolard's costumes are period-perfect.

    Taini acquits herself well in a thankless, one-dimensional role, while Jefferies is quite touching as a slightly shopworn optimist making one last grab at the brass ring. But this show -- the eighth entry in Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson's 10-year "marathon" of Williams works -- really belongs to Joan Van Ark, who makes Williams's stirring of spent embers more than just a warmed-over work.