Hats off, then, to director Laurie Sansom and his team at the Royal & Derngate, for presenting the piece in tandem with the slightly less unknown Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill (to be reviewed later) in the gorgeous Victorian Royal auditorium.
Williams wrote this play while studying at Iowa University in 1937, the same year as his sister Rose was subjected to a pre-frontal lobotomy (there’s a reference to “dementia praecox” in young women). A university professor dismissed it airily: “Well, we all have to paint our nudes.”
Williams did in fact supply an alternative striptease ending, but Sansom sticks with the more conventional, touching conclusion in which Liz White’s delightfully attractive and impulsive Heavenly Critchfield consigns herself to the ranks of young ladies in white dresses waiting on the porch out front.
Why? She’s been torn between the attentions of Michael Thomson’s muscle-rippling river man, Dick Miles, and Michael Malarkey’s Oxford-educated scion of land-owning Southern gentry, Arthur Shannon. She has an affair with Dick, but settles on Shannon before losing him, too, while her plain township rival, Anna Tolputt’s bespectacled librarian Hertha Neilson (yes, folks, these two are “Heaven and Herth”), is driven to suicide.
It’s a novelistic story with a rambling length that would benefit from some inspired editing. But Williams never wrote a dull scene; the play pulsates with hope and youthful fervour, and the dialogue ripples with his trademark tang and vivacity. There are fine, well-observed cameos, too, by Jacqueline King and Joanna Bacon as ladies of the town with their sewing and quivering social antennae.
Storms break all around the small Mississippi town of Port Tyler, but Sansom’s production, with a great broken wooden hull of a house designed by Sara Perks and lit by Chris Davey, which serves as a promontory over the river, is unnecessarily gloomy. The stage is surrounded by drab curtains. Shannon as the author, alas, intones the stage directions in a white suit and panama hat. But this is a significant and revelatory revival.