Natural History Theater

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

There's a lot of Tennessee Williams in Los Angeles right now. The great Southern playwright would be 100 this week and as a posthumous birthday celebration just about every theater in town is trotting out a production.

Williams has a remarkable biography. His father was abusive and a he had a doting over-protective mother. His sister's schizophrenia was not made better by a lobotomy, and after that she was incapacitated for the rest of her life. But that didn't keep him from writing 25 plays and winning two Pulitzers for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. After reaching the heights of fame he plunged into a decade of alcohol and drugs that turned him into, in his own words, a "ghost of a writer." Williams died from choking on a bottle cap, presumably because he was too drugged out to cough it up.

So you can understand why his work, which so clearly reflects his life, seems so . . . over the top.

That includes Eccentricities of a Nightingale, currently being produced by A Noise Within in Glendale. It draws heavily on Williams' life and the story of his own mother's childhood in Mississippi.

The nightingale from the title is Alma Winemiller, the somewhat shy, lonely, unwed daughter of a small town minister. She's got a beautiful singing voice but, as her own father chides her - her flightly hand gestures make her seem a bit eccentric. And he marvels that she doesn't break her neck from throwing her head back when she laughs.

Alma is on the cusp of becoming a spinster but she's fallen in love with the quiet but attractive young doctor next door. Trouble is, the doctor's mother will have none of it. Alma's own mother lost her mind years before, and has been banished to the attic and told to wait for a piece of fruitcake - a gem of a line from Williams.

A Noise Within, the company that produced the show, prides itself on being "California's home for the classics." But they fall into the trap of what I'll call "natural history theater." Theater that feels like you're looking at a diorama in a museum - in this case, an exhibit titled - "eccentric southerner's from the last century." The production emphasizes the distance between our lives and the life of Alma. While, in fact, Alma is frighteningly modern and closer to our own time than we might think. But this production gets lost in the melodrama that was William's life.

Williams' play is far more grounded than this production. Spoiler alert - the shy, almost prudish, nervous Alma ends the play a confident prostitute trolling the town square for a travelling salesman trick. Perhaps even more shocking, Williams seems proud of his heroine - she's found passion and strength even in her loneliness. The challenge and promise of the play is understanding this journey. Rather than finding the cause of the "Eccentricities of a Nightingale," the production treats them as mere historical oddities.

Eccentricities of a Nightingale plays through May 28 at A Noise Within in Glendale.

For info on the show, text the word "curtain" to 69866.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Banner image of (L to R) Jason Dechert and Deborah Puette in Eccentricities of a Nightingale: Craig Schwartz