Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana is set in a ramshackle tourist hotel on the Mexican coast in 1940. A gallery of florid characters find themselves pummeled by stormy situations both metaphorical and actual. At its most compelling, Williams' melodic prose ebbs and flows like the unseen ocean tide that threatens to carry our misbegotten hero off to China. Like that silent tide, much of what is most threatening here remains unseen, thus forcing our imaginations to help tell the story.
Initially the exotic locale sets Iguana apart from the bulk of Williams' work, most of which occurs in a Bermuda Triangle of souls lost between St. Louis, New Orleans and Florida. But it doesn't take long to realize that this is yet another in a long line of morality plays in which Williams again has cast himself as the put-upon protagonist. Here his stand-in is the Reverend Lawrence Shannon (Joshua Thomas), an Episcopalian minister more sinned against (or so he prefers to believe) than sinner.
Yet sinner he is: Shannon lost his Virginia pulpit after having seduced a young Sunday-school teacher. ("I said let's kneel down together and pray. All of a sudden the kneeling position turned into a reclining position.") Reduced to leading shabby tours, as the action begins Shannon has just committed statutory rape by sleeping with an underage nymphet in his tour group. On the verge of losing both his job and his sanity, he seeks refuge at the shabby Costa Verde Hotel, run by his old friend Fred. But Fred is dead. Instead Shannon is all but smothered by Fred's ungrieving widow, the blowsy Maxine (MaryBeth Scherr), and buffeted about by some German guests as they celebrate the bombing of Britain (and who in this staging are not nearly menacing enough). This florid menagerie is made complete with the arrival of Hannah Jelkes (Julie O'Neill), a beautiful if penniless New England spinster who is traveling the world with her grandfather Nonno (Bruce Collins), a 97-year-old poet.
Although there is plenty of plot to keep the action afloat in this Muddy Waters Theatre production (at least for the front half of the evening), none of these characters is particularly nuanced. Instead each personifies a point of view. Maxine — "bigger than life and twice as unnatural" — is the sensual earth mother, she who would celebrate sensation and revel in the moment. The virginal Hannah represents chaste, pure spirituality. Nonno carries the weight of all artists who (like Williams at this point in his career) must struggle mightily to complete an act of creation. Shannon himself is man at the crossroads of confusion. But they all possess frightened hearts, and for one charitable night they are able to find refuge and even a sense of solace under the same sky.
Shannon is such a difficult role: The character is perpetually exhausted, yet the actor must be sustained by enough vigor to drive the story forward. A tough duality, and Thomas pulls it off convincingly. He plays the early scenes with a fear in his voice that conveys as much as the words he's saying. Scherr is boldly right as the unkempt Maxine, and O'Neill emanates the gentle aura of the merciful Hannah. Collins' ruddy face is illuminated as if by the joy of life.
But problems arise late in the evening, during the all-critical confessional between Shannon and Hannah. This moonlight encounter is the core of the play, the only occasion when two people at the ends of their tethers are able to reach each other. Here connections are not made. The scene feels under-rehearsed. And why has director Jerry McAdams chosen to keep the two actors so far apart? It's probably best to not even mention the distracting sound of the offstage iguana, which reminds one more of the Loch Ness monster than a lizard.
So it is that although this Iguana has a good handle on the clatter, the play's soul remains in the shadows.