August 21, 2011 12:28:00 AM
Jan Swoope - firstname.lastname@example.org
In the respite before rehearsal Tuesday evening, cast and crew arrive, one by one. In shorts, jeans and sandals, they stroll into Whitfield Hall, exchanging hellos, adrenaline banked. The setting sun outside infuses Mississippi University for Women''s Rent Auditorium with a dusky light.
Actors here and there retreat to quiet corners to review their lines, lines penned by an icon of the literary stratosphere. A few head to costuming. Some join the crew as, prop by prop, the cavernous stage is transformed into a cut-rate tourist hotel on the coast of Mexico in the 1940s.
When director Paula Mabry calls, "OK, everybody, places," Tennessee Williams'' well-known work, "The Night of the Iguana," begins to unfold.
The theatrical production will open the 10th annual Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour of Victorian Homes, set for Sept. 6-11. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright born in Columbus 100 years ago will be celebrated with a week of theater, scholars'' talks, a "Stella" shouting contest, luncheons, a 5K run, complimentary breakfasts, a special sermon and, of course, Victorian home tours.
Acting the part
Shane Tubbs of Columbus portrays the play''s central figure, T. Lawrence Shannon, an ostracized priest-turned-tour guide, a man desperately staving off mental collapse. Like the play''s iguana tied to a veranda post with a rope, each of the principals is "one of God''s creatures at the end of the rope." But there are light moments, as well.
The personable Tubbs was in the locally-made indie film "The Flight of Calvin Waters" and the Williams Tribute 2010 play, "Sweet Bird of Youth." This production, however, is his biggest challenge to date -- a clergyman at odds with the canons of the church, between nervous breakdowns, and with a weakness for inappropriate relationships.
How did he try to get into the head of a such a conflicted character?
"I''ve never been covered up with all the trouble this guy is covered up with, but I can use some things I''ve been through," explained Tubbs, who credits his wife, Melissa, for running lines with him for "two and three hours" at a time from the 27 pages of hand-written dialogue he transcribed in an effort to retain and understand Shannon.
Tubbs did have a few qualms at first about the role, "but I go to a church that loves Jesus and loves me, whatever I might be doing," he smiled, referring to Murrah''s Chapel. "I think mine would be a church Shannon would go to, because they wouldn''t judge him, and they wouldn''t expect to be judged by him, either."
His strong ties actually helped with the role of a man.
"My church is pivotal to my religious life; I can only imagine how crazy it would make me for them to cast me out; that makes it easy for me to try to feel Shannon."
The former priest''s life is further complicated by the "bawdy" proprietess of Costa Verde Hotel, the sultry Maxine Faulk, played by Melanie Hintz. "Bigger than life and twice as unnatural" Shannon calls her, as he tries to elude both his demons and Maxine''s grasp.
If there''s a lifeboat for the struggling priest, it''s Hannah Jelkes, a spinster-ish New Englander played by Laura Beth Berry. Jelkes has traveled the globe, shepherding her "97-years-young" grandfather, Nonno, the world''s "oldest living and practicing poet." They eke out an existence, selling Hannah''s sketches, while Nonno recites his poems.
"Hannah''s been everywhere and met all kinds of people. She''s learned to accept it all without judgment. That may be her greatest strength, that she can accept anybody without judgment," reflected Berry, who several years ago performed in "Steel Magnolias" for Columbus dinner theater.
Equity guest artist Elliott Street of Meridian plays the aged Nonno.
"I would like to think that on some levels I''m a poet, but portraying a poet who is almost 100 years old cannot be rushed, nor hold up the pace of the play," said Street, who appeared in "The Legend of Bagger Vance," "Runaway Jury" and "Juwanna Mann," as well as in multiple TV roles. "This part offers me a great opportunity, not only because an actor loves being paid, but it''s a role I can play the rest of my life."
Brenda Caradine, founder and chair of the Tribute, was at rehearsal Tuesday.
"This cast is really such a wonderful group, so kind to one another. There are no divas here," she said afterward.
From the director''s chair
Director Mabry remarked, "I think there''s a tremendous amount of talent in Columbus and the Golden Triangle, not just on stage, but with the sets, props, costumes and stage managing, as well."
Mabry, a frequent director with Starkville Community Theatre, directed the 2006 Tribute play, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
"I absolutely love doing a Tennessee Williams show. It''s the ultimate goal for a Southern director," stated Mabry, an alumna of MUW. "And it means so much to me to get to come back to that stage at Whitfield, where I really started."
How to go
"The Night of the Iguana" will be presented in Whitfield Hall Sept. 6, 7 and 10 at 7:30 p.m., and Friday, Sept. 9, at 8 p.m. (a time adjustment to accommodate the "Stella" Shouting Contest which begins at 5:30 p.m. in front of Hollyhocks Gift Shop on Fifth St. S. in downtown Columbus.)
Tickets are $15, or $10 for seniors and students with ID.
A special matinee open to students, seniors and Columbus Air Force Base personnel is being offered Sunday, Sept. 4, at 2:30 p.m. Admission is $5.
Of the play, Mabry said, "I hope audiences will find the beauty in the language. Tennessee Williams was a master of writing, expressing himself so well in the way Southerners think. Even though he wrote this decades ago, the language still flows the same."
The Tribute week features a variety of ways to celebrate Tennessee in this centennial year since his birth.
Back by popular demand, the Moon Lake Party Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Columbus Country Club will showcase down-home Southern dining, and "Precious Memories: Remembering Tennessee Williams" with Broadway, TV and film actors Tandy Cronyn and Jeremy Lawrence. (Tickets are $25.)
Free morning and afternoon scholars'' presentations by Todd Bunnell, Dr. Zhang Min, Dr. Raymond-Jean Frontain and Dr. Deborah Barker on Sept. 9 and Sept. 10 invite the public to explore numerous facets of the writer''s body of work.
New this year is the first annual "Streetcar Run," a 5K hosted by the Golden Triangle Running Club (runcyclegtr.org) and sponsored by the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau. It will start at 8 a.m Sept. 10 at the Tennessee Williams Home Welcome Center and Museum at 300 Main St.
Luncheons, double decker bus tours and a very special worship service Sept. 11 at St. Paul''s Episcopal Church -- where Williams'' grandfather was rector and where the playwright was baptized -- also highlight Williams'' extraordinary impact on the literary world. Dr. Cameron Richardson Howard, the daughter of Tom and Emma Richardson of Columbus, will deliver the sermon based on "The Night of the Iguana." A "Southern Sunday Dinner" at the church follows the sermon.
Poets and tours
The Tribute week will conclude that afternoon with a free 1:30 p.m. poet''s corner at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library and ticketed tours from 2-5 p.m. of three Victorian homes.
View the entire Tribute schedule at muw.edu/tennesseewilliams. Or, for ticket and event information, or for brochures, contact the Welcome Center at 662-328-0222 or 800-327-2686. Or email Caradine at email@example.com.
The Tribute is coordinated by the all-volunteer Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour of Victorian Homes Committee, and presented by the committee, the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Billups Garth Foundation, Mississippi Humanities Council and generous supporters.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.