Make a scene: Parade of Tennessee Williams' characters await their cue during tribute

August 21, 2010 8:28:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


A small town boy turned big city gigolo, the fading film star, a controlling father, the mysterious stranger, even a bed of crushed petunias ... all are in the wings, waiting for their stage debut in Columbus during the Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour of Victorian Homes Sept. 6-12. 


Fans of good theatre will get to meet these intriguing characters and elements during the multi-faceted 2010 Tribute, when several works by Williams, the famous playwright and poet born in Columbus March 26, 1911, are featured. 


Two of the late Pulitzer Prize winner''s plays are being produced: the full-length "Sweet Bird of Youth" Sept. 8-11, and, much shorter, "The Case of the Crushed Petunias" Sept. 7-9. 


A third interpretation of Tennessee''s work comes in the form of a film matinee Sept. 11 of "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond," starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Ellen Burstyn and Ann Margaret. Director Jodie Markell will lead a question-and-answer session with the audience after the 2 p.m. screening in MUW''s Nissan Auditorium. 


Poetry lovers won''t be overlooked during the Tribute, which is designated a Southeast Tourism Society Top 20 Event for September for a fifth time. Hear Williams'' poems interpreted by local readers Sept. 12 at the newly-renovated Tennessee Williams Welcome Center at 300 Main St. The center, which was the former St. Paul''s Episcopal Church rectory, was the writer''s first home. 


"So much good for our city and region has come from Tennessee Williams Tribute events over the past nine years," said Tribute founder and chair Brenda Caradine. "Right now, in London, an ad placed by the state Tourism Board in the nightly programs at the performance of ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' invites play-goers to visit Mississippi and Columbus." 


"This Tribute is a terrific boon for Columbus," said Rus Blackwell, director of "Sweet Bird of Youth." "Who else can say they''re the birthplace of Tennessee Williams?"  




Sweet bird 


Professional actor, director, producer and acting coach Rus Blackwell returns to Columbus to guide the cast of "Sweet Bird of Youth" in this Second Line Productions presentation. He directed the well-received "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the 2009 Tribute. 


"When I was here last year, the reception of the community, the support of the people involved, made it a no-brainer to come back," Blackwell said.  


This 1959 play, resplendent with the author''s complex characters, represents a full circle for Blackwell, who grew up in Pass Christian. He played lead character "Chance Wayne" in 1986, one of his first roles upon returning to the South after earning the opportunity to study at the renowned Circle in the Square in New York City for two years.  


"This speaks to me on a lot of different levels," said Blackwell, whose 25-plus year career has unfolded primarily in Los Angeles and New York. His film credits include current shooting in "Battle: Los Angeles," with Aaron Eckhart, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and "Like Dandelion Dust" with Barry Pepper and Mira Sorvino. He has an extensive stage resume, and is one of the original founders and artistic directors for the Mad Cow Theatre Company and SoulFire Theatre. He''s currently based in Orlando, Fla. 




The singular South 


Blackwell''s own Southern roots intensify his connection to Williams'' characters. 


"Tennessee Williams has a genius style ... his characters are rooted in people that we know -- they''re very specific people we know in the South. They''re derivatives of relationships and people he observed in his life." 


"Sweet Bird of Youth" revolves around Chance, a former golden boy, returning to his Southern hometown and lost youth. He''s accompanied by an aging actress, Princess Kosmonopolis, whom he hopes will be his meal ticket to break into movies. Enter Chance''s past love, Heavenly, and her intimidating daddy, Boss Finley. 


A combination of Blackwell''s prior work with talented directors familiar with Williams'' work, plus his own background, give him, he feels, an intuitive "in." 


"My very being, my essence, changes about the time I get to Mobile, or whichever place is close depending on how I''m getting back to Mississippi. There''s such a depth here, such rich culture here ... I get in a different place ... and I welcome that place." 


He and the cast aspire to transport the audience to another place and time, to translate the writer''s mastery of language into characters who are very human. 


"There''s a quote about ''technique'' .... We know our technique is working when the technique disappears," stated Blackwell. "That''s what we''re going to try to do with ''Sweet Bird.'' We want to put this in people''s laps and not just concentrate on the beautiful language. 




The cast 


Prizing the geographic richness of this play, Blackwell felt it important to cast locally and regionally as much as possible. Brook Hanemann, formerly of Columbus, now of Bogalusa, La., will portray Heavenly. Professional actor John Moore of Memphis, Tenn., brings Chance to life, while Jo Ann Robinson of Jackson plays Princess and Don Seay of Oviedo, Fla., fills Boss'' shoes. 


Columbus thespians tapped for the cast include Shane Tubbs, Cherri Golden, Jana Paige Canida-Green, Charlie Williams, Heather Rowland, Parker Yarbrough, Andy Currie and Chandler Davis. Corbett Estes of West Point is also in the play. Brooks Berry of Columbus serves as sound designer. 


Other cast and crew hail from across Mississippi and Alabama, as well as McMahon Springs, N.Y. Production manager Sarah Hickox is from Decatur.  


The director praised, "I''m so pleased with the people we have; they''re gold. And I think that there are more people like them out there. 


" ... To have an opportunity to direct one of the world''s greatest playwrights in the town he was born in, with people who have passion for Tennessee Williams and his work, is an experience you can''t put a dollar amount on."  


"Sweet Bird of Youth" will be presented in Rent Auditorium on the Mississippi University for Women campus Sept. 8-11, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($10 seniors and military; $5 for students with ID). Buy them at the Rosenzweig Arts Center, 501 Main St., (662-328-2787), or at the door. 




Crushed petunias 


"The Case of the Crushed Petunias" will offer a mid-day change of pace -- a short, relatively unknown play penned by Williams in 1941. It will be directed by Patrick Falco, head of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Massachusetts. Falco has been a valuable resource for the Columbus Tribute for several years. 


Set in Primandproper, Mass., a salesman for "Life Incorporated" tries to convince a restless Cape Cod notions clerk to dance on the village green and rethink her life. 


The play, originally produced by the Provincetown festival in association with CTEK Arts, features Provincetown actors and will be paired with lunch in the Rosenzweig Arts Center Gallery, 501 Main St., Sept. 7-9. 


"It''s a great way for downtown businesses and for clubs to host a gathering," Caradine said. Reservations and tickets ($15; $10 for students with ID) are required. Contact the Arts Center at 662-328-2787. 


For a complete schedule of free and ticketed events during the week-long Tennessee Williams Tribute, visit, e-mail [email protected] or contact the Welcome Center at 662-328-0222 or 800-327-2686.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.