February 21, 2009
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
With incredible nuance and what some might call an almost preternatural insight, Tennessee Williams crafted on paper some of literature and film''s most memorably complex and flawed characters. A few of them will be in Columbus for a visit this week. The brutish "Stanley Kowalski" and his long-suffering "Stella." An overbearing "Amanda Wingfield," her tragically fragile daughter, "Laura," and conflicted son "Tom" -- in one form or another, they each will resurrect the spirit of the famous playwright born in Columbus in 1911.
In conjunction with the Mississippi Humanities Council''s inaugural Southern Literary Trailfest, the Mississippi University for Women Department of Music and Theatre celebrates the Pulitzer Prize-winning author with a "Stella and Stanley" screaming contest Feb. 25 and a production of Williams'' "The Glass Menagerie" Feb. 26-March 1.
All of it will, play director Brook Hanemann hopes, boost appreciation for one of the world''s most famous literary figures who spent the first few years of his extraordinary life in the St. Paul''s Episcopal Church Rectory in Columbus, which now serves as the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center.
"I''m on kind of a personal mission," Hanemann said. "I came to this town thinking Tennessee Williams would be extremely visible and appreciated here. I was shocked to find very little evidence of him, except for what is being done so beautifully by the Tennessee Williams Tribute committee and the Welcome Center itself."
Whole lotta shoutin'' goin'' on
"A Streetcar Named Desire" won Williams his first Pulitzer in 1948. After a showing of the iconic 1951 film version last week, MUW students should be well-versed in the incomparable Marlon Brando''s infamous "Stell-lahh"-- a moment described as the "to be or not to be soliloquy of the postmodern world" by play critic David Templeton.
At noon Feb. 25, guys and girls will line up for the chance to show off their pipes at the screaming contest across from the university cafeteria, said Hanemann, whose first stage role at the age of 5 was as a flower girl in "Streetcar." This summer, she will portray fading Southern belle "Blanche Dubois" in "Streetcar" at The Vine Theatre in Orlando, Fla.
Those wanting to participate can contact her at [email protected] to register. First prize is an evening at the Amzi Love Bed and Breakfast in Columbus.
"We invite everyone to come by," the visiting professor urged. "A lawn chair and popcorn might be a good idea."
''The Glass Menagerie''
Many view "The Glass Menagerie" as an autobiographical glimpse into the author''s own troubled world. The play, which won the New York Drama Critics Award in 1945, eerily mimics his own angst as the brother of a mentally ill sister, Rose. It''s impossible not to draw comparisons to "Menagerie''s" vulnerable "Laura."
In Columbus, that role will be filled by MUW sophomore Jessi Tidwell, who last year sang and acted a lead role in "The Taffetas."
"This is the hardest role I''ve ever played," the Winfield, Ala., native said. "Laura is a painfully shy girl who loves her family and wants to keep them happy, but, for her, fear is a constant thing. She loves her glass animals; they''re the only things she can take care of, the only things she can control. That, and playing the phonograph her father left her before he left his family. ... By the end of the play, she''s just broken."
Play it again
The phonograph to be used in the production has a remarkable story of its own. The circa 1920s-era player was discovered in a Gulf Coast shed belonging to crew member Kyle Bellinger''s 89-year-old grandmother. Although marred by water and the passage of time, it had miraculously survived Hurricanes Camille and Katrina.
"They found a gentleman with a skeleton key that opens most Victrolas," Hanemann shared. "They certainly never expected it to still play, but they cranked it up and it worked! It''s so beautiful and brought this ethereal haunted aura to the theater."
"Tennessee Williams is responsible for some of the most sought-after female roles in theater, especially American theater," stated Hanemann, who initiated an academic course at MUW titled "The Women of Tennessee Williams." "He created characters of depth. Women, up to then, were generally functions -- they were the wife, the girlfriend."
In addition to Tidwell, the student cast features Aja Wilson, of New Orleans, La., as the complex mother, "Amanda Wingfield;" Alex Jenkins, of Winfield, Ala., as "Tom Wingfield," the son who aspires to be a writer but works in a factory, burdened by his family; and Dustin Gibson, of Columbus, as "Jim O''Connor," the gentleman caller.
MUW''s production of "The Glass Menagerie" takes place in Cromwell Communications Center at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. General admission is $10 at the door, and $5 for students with student identification. Cromwell is located at the corner of 10th Street South and Sixth Avenue South.
A "talkback" will be held right after Friday evening''s performance. Audience members and cast will engage in an informal discussion with mental health authorities including Dr. Saul Vydas; Dorothy Burgland, assistant director of MUW family studies; and Dr. Beverly Joyce, head of the women''s studies teaching circle.
After one of the last rehearsals, a tired but enthusiastic Tidwell shared: "We are ridiculously excited about the play because we''ve worked so hard. We watched ourselves tonight because Brook filmed us the night before. That''s just what we needed to push it to another level."
The university''s art and design students have become involved in the production as well, creating graphic designs being used on the poster and the playbill.
Hanemann readily admits she loves the South. "I love the genteel feel, something that Columbus is such a part of. That''s something that''s really not present in other places as it is here. Because of that, I felt it was really important to recognize this playwright who left us such a prolific cannon. We''re still finding one-acts (he wrote) we didn''t know existed.
"We wanted to do this, too, in honor of our own Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour of Victorian Homes in September, as well as the New Orleans Tennessee Williams Festival. This town should be very proud it is his first home."
Southern Literary Trail
The Southern Literary Trail is a collaboration of 18 Southern towns from Natchez to Savannah, Ga., celebrating renowned writers and playwrights of the 20th century who were inspired by their communities.
Other Columbus Trailfest events include a March 9 discussion by Dr. Sheldon Kohn on the literary and intellectual influence of MUW on Eudora Welty and other Mississippi authors at Carrier Chapel at 2:30 p.m. and a March 30 lecture and demonstration at Carrier Chapel by Dr. Jim Del Prince on floral designs inspired by the settings in Williams'' plays. And, of course, the annual spring Pilgrimage runs March 30 through April 11.
Other Trailfest events in the state take place in Clarksdale, Greenville, Jackson, Natchez and Oxford. For full details, visit www.southernliterarytrail.org.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.