The Two-Character Play
Jermyn Street Theatre Autumn 2010
Tennessee Williams wrestled with this play for more than a decade, producing five different versions in the 1960s and 1970s, one with the alternate title Out Cry.
He never really mastered it, but its obvious importance to him and its raw presentation of some of his recurring themes make it fascinating to any Williams fan.
A brother-and-sister acting team, abandoned by their company, have to perform (Other versions of the text make it a rehearsal) the only two-character play in their repertoire, about brother-and-sister agoraphobics trapped in their decaying Southern home.
Inevitably, the external and internal personalities get confused and blended, bouncing off each other to explore from different angles one of Williams's lifelong concerns, the feeling of being unable to face the challenges of ordinary life and the need to carry on regardless.
Williams's genius lay in his ability to translate his own personal neuroses and demons into universal metaphors, and it is clear that on one level the two stories of the couples being bound together and unable to move forward reflect his own undeserved guilt at having abandoned (which he didn't do) his beloved sister Rose, the model for Laura, Blanche and other too-fragile Williams heroines, and his sense that he will never escape her - think of the glorious final speech of The Glass Menagerie.
What he was clearly trying to do here was transform that personal anguish into something others could share - the fear of being unable to cope, the lure of surrender and even madness, and the heroism of continuing to try, even if that leads to failure.
And he comes awfully close to succeeding, blocked only by the clumsiness of his Pirandello structure and the fact that these particular characters, unlike Stanley, Blanche, Brick or Maggie, remain walking symbols, never fleshed out into real people we can identify with and respond to.
In a way, that almost makes this play a good introduction to Williams, since it presents his themes and methods so rawly, but it means that The Two-Character Play will always remain more an intellectual experience than a living drama.
Faced with that limitation, director Gene David Kirk and actors Catherine Cusack and Paul McEwan go further than I thought likely in bringing the play alive.
Both actors at first seem a bit too solid and real for what one imagines as the wraith-like near-ghosts of the text, but they use that well, making us sense that even 'normal' people can share the fears and insecurities Williams writes about.
Imperfect Williams is greater and far more interesting than the perfect work of a lot of lesser writers, and the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre is exactly right for this fragile play, which wants to operate on the level of a gentle and tentative whisper.
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of The Two-Character Play - Jermyn Street Theatre 2010