The Theatreguide.London Review
Cottesloe Theatre Spring-Summer 2010
Tennessee Williams wrote this play for a university course he took in 1937. It was never produced in his lifetime and only rediscovered in his papers in 1996.
This production from the Royal and Derngate Northampton is its first staging outside the USA.
It is clearly a beginning writer's play, but a beginning writer of obvious talent.
Were I to encounter it without knowing the author, I might say (as I frequently have occasion to) 'This is not a wholly successful play, but there is a real writer here. It's worth seeing not only for its own merits but so that when his next play, or the one after that, is a total success, you can say that you spotted him at the start.'
And since the play after that was The Glass Menagerie, I would have been proven right.
Spring Storm is a story of young love among the status-obsessed upper middle classes of the American South. Passionate and forgivably flighty deb Heavenly Critchfield loves Dick Miles, who is not exactly from the wrong side of the tracks, but is sufficiently without a future (He dreams of travel and of working with his hands) for her mother to push her rather toward much-better-catch Arthur Shannon.
Poetic, nerdy Arthur loves Heavenly, but is paralysed not only by his shyness but by adolescent memories of being an outsider snubbed and teased by Heavenly and the other popular kids.
(A fourth character, a shy librarian in love with Arthur, is underwritten and all-but-forgotten by the playwright until he needs her for a melodramatic finish.)
Heavenly sleeps with Dick while her monstrously comic mother pushes her at Arthur. Arthur dithers and wavers between old hatreds and new desires.
And while they're trying to figure out what to do with their lives, life happens to them, making decisions they can't make for themselves.
The reliance on that melodramatic ending, the inability to integrate the librarian better or to develop some obvious symbols (like a rising river threatening to flood the town) and a couple of clumsily written scenes (like one between Heavenly and her mother) betray the fledgling playwright at work.
On the other hand,Dick's fumbling expression of his wanderlust, Arthur's vacillating shyness and Heavenly's good heart are all convincingly and touchingly communicated, making us believe in and care for these young people.
And scenes like the one in which Heavenly tries desperately to make small talk on a date with Arthur, only to dig herself ever deeper into insipid silliness, or one in which her mother tries desperately to cover an embarrassing moment with chatter, are Southern Gothic comedy of the highest order.
Of course, for Williams fans there is the added excitement of seeing hints of themes, techniques and characters to come. Heavenly is a portrait of what Amanda Wingfield or Blanche DuBois might have been when younger, reminding us that those characters were soured by life, not sour from the start.
Arthur has grains of later weak and passive men like Brick Pollitt and Chance Wayne, and while it might be a stretch to see Stanley Kowalski in Dick (he also has elements of the Gentleman Caller), there is a first hint of Williams' suspicion that raw, muscular commonness might be what the Southern gene pool most needed.
Under Laurie Sansom's sensitive direction Liz White lets us see the inherent healthiness and goodness beneath the inherited cultural baggage Heavenly must carry, while Michael Malarkey takes Arthur through a wide range of emotions, sometimes within a single scene, while keeping a continuity and sympathy to the character.
Michael Thomson brings Dick fully alive in a couple of brief scenes, while Jacqueline King creates a memorable and delightful comic mother.
And a footnote: the same company is also performing in Eugene O'Neill's Beyond The Horizon, giving us an experience the National Theatre itself has deprived us of for too long - the pleasure of seeing the same actors in complementary or contrasting roles on consecutive evenings.
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