The Night of the Iguana

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By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Michele Lonsdale Smith. An In the Company of Productions presentation.

In rep at the Playwrights Theatre Centre until Saturday, December 11

Spite tempts me to say otherwise, but with this mounting of Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana, In the Company of Productions offers a consistently clear and intelligent reading of a beautiful text. Artists and others associated with the troupe have made some foolishly condescending statements about the quality and quantity of theatrical entertainment in Vancouver--most of the actors in this show work primarily in film and TV--but the performers come through where it counts most: in their interpretive skill.

In his story, which he sets in a run-down hotel in Costa Verde, Mexico, Williams explores desperation using his favourite terms: sex, death, and addiction. Williams, who wrote most powerfully in the 1950s and early '60s, was tormented by the unacceptability of his homosexual desire. His straight stand-in here is the Rev. Lawrence T. Shannon, a minister who was barred from his church for having sex with a young parishioner. In this play, the weight of his sins has multiplied: he's leading a tour group of 11 Baptist women through Mexico. He has screwed the youngest, who's barely 17, and all the characters know about it. As he fears for his job and fights his panic, Shannon also struggles to resist both his weakness for alcohol and the drunken, "insatiable" Maxine Faulk, who runs the hotel.

It doesn't happen in many of Williams's plays, but in this one, honesty and personal generosity open the door to the possibility of transcending suffering. Those qualities come on-stage with Hannah Jelkes, a penniless middle-aged artist who has been travelling the world with her grandfather. Once a poet of minor renown, he is now an ailing 97. Shannon refers to Hannah as "my thin, standing-up, female Buddha", and it's easy to see why: when he's losing his mind with fear and shame, she calms him with a compassionate memory of her encounter with a sexual fetishist. There is nothing judgmental about her.

Sarah-Jane Redmond embodies Hannah with grace and containment. In the simplicity of her work, Redmond finds both the humility and the spiritual size that make Hannah such a compelling figure. Hannah, who comes from Nantucket, shouldn't sound British, but that's a minor concern.

Chris Davis plays Nono, Hannah's grandfather. He sports what sounds like an authentic New England accent and offers a moving portrait of dignity within frailty.

Strangely, the element that's in relatively short supply here is Eros. I caught sight of its debased version in Shannon's eyes as he set out to seduce Hannah, but sex rarely feels as dangerous as it should for the dynamics of this play to really get rolling.

There's a lot to admire in Christopher Shyer's interpretation of the troubled minister--his emotional fatigue is credible--but he's not as physically wild or compelling as I wanted him to be. Similarly, I find it hard to fault the details of Lynda Boyd's performance as Maxine, but I wanted more rampant sexual and emotional hunger.

Still, this is a handsome production, and it deserves an audience.