Celebrating Tennessee: Revered actress brings one of America’s great playwrights to life

August 22, 2009 10:48:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


There was a time when Thomas Lanier Williams, born March 26, 1911, in Columbus, was simply another curious toddler growing up on College Street. His first years were there with his family in the rectory of St. Paul''s Episcopal Church, where his maternal grandfather, the Rev. Walter Dakin, was priest.  


The destined child who, by several accounts, described his earliest years in Mississippi as "happy and carefree," grew up to claim a permanent place in literary history, winning Pulitzers, a Tony and even a Presidential Medal of Freedom by breathing life and passion into some of stage and screen''s most memorably troubled characters. 


And for the eighth consecutive year, the Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour of Victorian Homes Committee has orchestrated an entertainingly educational celebration honoring the late playwright, poet and author.  


The week-long fest Sept. 7-13 brims with professional theater, scholars'' lectures, home and city tours, music, exhibits, complimentary breakfasts, scrumptious luncheons and an inspiring message from the pulpit. But a crowning highlight is "An Evening with Olympia Dukakis" Sept. 12, at 7:30 p.m., on the Mississippi University for Women campus. Tickets, available at the Rosenzweig Arts Center in downtown Columbus, are $25 ($20 for seniors and military personnel; $10 for students with I.D.). 




The Milk Train 


Dukakis -- who has three movies slated for release this year and next -- has portrayed Williams'' characters in productions of "The Glass Menagerie," "Night of the Iguana," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Rose Tattoo." 


But it was the aging "Flora Goforth" in the lesser-known "The Milk Train Doesn''t Stop Here Anymore" who most recently intrigued her.  


"''Milk Train'' I was really drawn to," Dukakis told writer Tad Wilkes for DeSoto magazine''s August issue. "It''s about a woman who is fighting to be alive and to be as fiercely alive as she has always been. She won''t accept any kind of comfort, whether it''s from a human being or from a religious idea. Finally she does accept this comfort and tenderness from this young man, and she''s able to die. It''s as much about how she wants to live as it is about how she wants to die." 


Seeing the revered actress perform at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Massachusetts last year inspired Brenda Caradine to try to have Dukakis visit Columbus. 


"I saw her do it; she''s powerful," said Caradine, who leads the local volunteer Tribute committee. 


"For us, she''s going to do readings from Tennessee Williams and going to be interviewed, a la Dick Cavett, by David Kaplan." Kaplan is curator of the Provincetown Festival. 


"Provincetown is a wonderful resource to us, and they''re willing to share and are happy to help us," Caradine added. 


In Columbus, Dukakis will perform vignettes from "Milk Train," as well as excerpts from other works by Williams, said Caradine. The actress and Kaplan are also expected to interact with the audience.  


To cap an extraordinary evening, she''ll attend and sign autographs at a Moon Lake Party at the Thad and Rose Cochran Building on the MUW campus following the performance. Ticket holders will also enjoy hors d''oeuvres by Roger Busby, libations by Wines, Etc. and music for dancing by the Night Call Jazz Trio, of Memphis, Tenn. Tickets for this event are $50, and only 175 will be sold. 




More theater 


At the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library Sept. 11, at 7 p.m., and Sept. 12, at 2 p.m., the Tribute presents "The Dog Enchanted by the Divine View," one of Williams'' trove of one-act plays. This precursor to his later full-length "The Rose Tattoo" is directed by Kaplan and stars Nancy Cassaro, of Los Angeles, and Larry Coen, of New York. The film version of "The Rose Tattoo" follows. Tickets are $15. 


Audience discussion will be led afterward by Dr. Colby Kullman, a Williams scholar from the University of Mississippi.  


Strong drama occurs in "A Streetcar Named Desire" Sept. 7-10, at 7:30 p.m. each evening, in Rent Auditorium. The Second Line Theatre Co. cast includes professional actors from across the country, as well as Columbus'' own Brook Hanemann as "Blanche Dubois." The production is directed by Rus Blackwell, who recently acted opposite Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." A dress rehearsal Sept. 6 has been opened to seniors and students who prefer a day event.  


MUW theater students will also present scenes from "The Glass Menagerie" Sept. 12 at the library and Sept. 13 at the Omnova Theater 




Free events 


The community is invited to free scholars'' lectures at Carrier Chapel on the MUW campus Sept. 11 (2-4 p.m.) and Sept. 12 (10 a.m.-noon). Arranged by Dr. Bridget Pieschel, director of the Southern Women''s Institute at Mississippi University for Women, and made possible by support from the Mississippi Humanities Council, talks will feature Dr. Serena Haygood Blount, Dr. Michael Smith, Dr. Robert West and Dr. Kenneth Holdich..  


Other free attractions include guided bus tours with the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation''s Nancy Carpenter and Williams scholar Steve Pieschel Sept. 11 and 13, and a Sept. 13 sermon at St. Paul''s by the Very Reverend James Carlyle, based on "The Rose Tattoo." Also enjoy a complimentary breakfast with the scholars from 8:30-9:30 a.m. Sept. 11 and 12 at the Puckett House on the MUW campus, hosted by Main Street Columbus and the TWT Committee.  


"We couldn''t do this on the small budget we have without the support of this community," said Caradine, enumerating numerous examples of local generosity. "I believe this town has a heart to volunteer and a heart to honor Tennessee Williams"  


Complete listings of the many events, times, locations and ticket information can be accessed at www.muw.edu/tennesseewilliams/. Or call the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center -- the original rectory which was Tennessee''s first home -- at 662-328-0222 or 800-327-2686.  


Individual event tickets, as well as all-inclusive patron packages ($150 through Aug. 29; $170 after), are available now at the Rosenzweig Arts Center. For more information, contact the RAC at 662-328-2787.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.