March 23, 2013 7:38:35 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Roiling tensions on stage more than equal the churning Mississippi River that threatens to flood a decaying farm house and the three conflicted souls inside in Tennessee Williams' "Kingdom of Earth." The two-act play, once titled "The Seven Descents of Myrtle," will be presented in downtown Columbus April 1-13 by the Tennessee Williams Tribute committee.
The organization is best-known for the annual tribute it hosts each September to honor the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright born in Columbus in 1911. But founder and chair Brenda Caradine was eager to produce one of Williams' plays during the city's Spring Pilgrimage, when visitors from other states and countries make their way to the Friendly City.
"The play has only three characters -- but what characters they are," said Caradine, who first saw this production at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Massachusetts in 2012.
"I knew it would be perfect to put on in Columbus, in a vacant storefront, as I had seen it there," she said. The search for a suitable location downtown was challenging, but local realtor Royce Hudspeth fostered a contact between the determined Caradine and Gayle Guynup of Santa Rosa, Calif., who generously permitted the use of her property at 425 Main St., the longtime home of Alford Drug Co. and, most recently, The Chill House.
Cherri Golden and David Trotter, both of Columbus, and Alex Orsak of Starkville make up the cast Williams embroils in a brutal, carnal power play for possession of a decrepit, ancestral home in the Mississippi Delta of 1960. Sibling rivalry flares as two half-brothers -- Lot and Chicken -- and Lot's brand new bride, Myrtle, engage in a battle of wills.
Golden is no stranger to Williams' female roles. Tribute audiences have seen her in "Sweet Bird of Youth," "The Night of the Iguana," and in September, the central role of Serafina Delle Rose in "The Rose Tattoo."
"This is another of Tennessee Williams' strong survivor women," said Golden, who is also a veteran of Columbus Community Theatre, Theatre MUW and Starkville Community Theatre productions. When not acting, she works for USDA APHIS Wildlife Services in Starkville.
Her Myrtle, a "low rent Marilyn Monroe," is a woman who's had a hard life but tries to make the best of things, the actress said. Unfortunately, Myrtle's romantic illusions about her new husband of two days -- the tubercular, neurotic (and transvestite) Lot -- crumble when she discovers his ulterior motive for taking a wife -- to keep his mixed-race half-brother from inheriting the family property.
With only three characters in the play, and 13 performances, "Kingdom of Earth" is a demanding production. Golden is on stage for the entire two acts and has plenty of dialogue to deliver.
"But I'm relishing it and very grateful that Tennessee Williams wrote roles like this," she said. "I hope everybody comes to see this and enjoys it because we have been workin' like crazy!"
Brothers in conflict
Mississippi State junior Alex Orsak, 21, draws on his experience with Theatre MSU and Starkville Community Theatre to infuse the plotting, mother-fixated and increasingly frail Lot with nuances the playwright intended.
"Lot is between a rock and a hard place because he came back to his family home thinking that with Myrtle he'd be strong against Chicken, but when Myrtle falls for Chicken's masculinity and his persuasion, he's growing weaker, not only physically, but more hopeless, too," shared Orsak.
The lusty Chicken is portrayed by New Orleans native David Trotter, who spent formative years in Columbus and graduated from Columbus High School before returning to Louisiana and studying culinary arts. Today, he lives in Caledonia, with his wife and two daughters. He's happy to be on stage again, something he hasn't had an opportunity to do in many years.
"Chicken is a character that's been despised all his life, the No. 2 child; Lot is the chosen one," he said, offering insight into his character's fierce desire to own the old family home. "He's sort of conniving and he's pretty mean, because he's been stepped on all his life. I like the role."
At the helm
M.J. Etua directs the cast with a deft hand.
"She pays attention to every detail and looks at every little angle to help us build our characters and build the story more," said Trotter.
"I'm absolutely ecstatic she took this on; she is wonderful; it's a treat and an honor to work with her," Golden added.
An award-winning teacher, actress, director and playwright, Etua currently teaches Theatre Arts and has served as chair of the Fine Arts Department at Louisville High School. She has directed numerous shows for the Starkville Community Theatre and is the creative force behind SCT summer children's theatre, Projects. P.L. A. Y.
This is the former Mississippi Theatre Association president's first Tennessee Williams play to direct.
"Columbus is so fortunate to have such a legend as a native son," she remarked. "Williams is such an intuitive playwright, as well as being very progressive for his time. I appreciate 'Kingdom of Earth' for its timeless issues and its bold statement of how we need to reflect on our society."
Claude Simpson of Columbus, assisted by Ed Moody, created the physical setting for the story. Simpson has constructed sets for many Tribute productions in the past.
How to go
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. nightly April 1-13, except for Sunday, April 7, at 2:30 p.m. Seating is limited to 50. Advance tickets are recommended and are available for $10 at the Rosenzweig Arts Center at 501 Main St. in downtown Columbus. Tickets at the door, if available, are $15. "Kingdom of Earth" is intended for mature audiences.
For more information, contact Caradine at 662-328-55413.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.