TENNESSEE RISING: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams: A Review

Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee WIlliams is a smart, fascinating, and highly entertaining one man show written and performed by Jacob Storms and directed by Alan Cumming.  This award-winning solo piece, now playing at Manhattan’s AMT Theater, gives its audience a vivid look at the life of the man who was born “Thomas Lanier Williams III” on March 26, 1911.  The story is told in flashback, with the 28-year-old author speaking directly to the audience from a boarding house in the ever-notorious French Quarter of New Orleans.  Early on, the playwright speaks about what would become one of the most pivotal moments in his life as an artist: entering three of his short plays into a contest by New York City’s The Group Theatre.  Because the cutoff age for applicants was 25, he shaved three years off his real birthday.  To avoid getting “caught”, he mailed his work under a nom de plume: “Tennessee Williams”.  (Before you ask, he won.  The prize was $100, which in was the equivalent of $1,968.11 in 1939…) 

Tennessee Williams was one of those larger-than-life figures whose personal life was the subject of almost as much discussion as his iconic works, which include such perennially produced plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Night of the Iguana.  Later in life, the prolific writer grappled with addictions and mental health issues, speculated to be due at least in part to waning success with his later plays.  Many also hypothesized that WIlliams had trouble accepting his own sexuality, a theme which was often explored through selected characters in his works. (More about that later…) Given so much discourse about Williams’ later life, it may be easy to forget that the author was once a young, handsome, and lively soul whose ambitions couldn’t be contained in his birthplace of Columbus, Mississippi. Jacob Storms, who received the United Solo Award for Best One-Man Show at United Solo Fest for this piece, captures the unblemished looks and youthful energy of the twentysomething Williams, complete with big, expressive eyes and a zest for life that seems to burst off the AMT’s small stage.  Storms also expertly channels Williams’ Southern accent.  When we hear the line, “Last night the police picked up Paul and I because someone reported us as being suspicious characters”, it’s “POE-lease”, not “puh-LEASE“.   It is no less than fascinating to hear Storms-as-Williams share his stories from his travels all over the country– the stories which we know, of course, will be used for Williams’ future writings. We learn his feelings about New York City (“New York is a very lonely place. I have met loads of people, but everyone is involved in their own lives. They have no time to devote to anyone but themselves.”), while Provincetown, with its combination of handsome men and lovely scenery, was arguably his most happy place. (#SomeThingsNeverChange…) Of course, the locations are nothing without the people, and this is where aficionados of transgenerational pop culture will particularly love Tennessee Rising.  We hear stories from his childhood and learn about his family. (His sister Rose and her menagerie of glass animals, a well-known inspiration for so much of his work, get a lot of attention.) We learn about real life people who inspired his future works. (Yes, kids, there really was a “Stanley Kowalski”.) Fans of Williams will indeed appreciate how real people in the author’s life found their ways into his plays, from his lesser-known works as The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde to the more popular ones like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  As the play progresses and Storms’ Williams becomes more famous, the playwright drops a LOT of names from the worlds of literature (D.H. Lawrence, George Bernhard Shaw, Arthur Miller) and entertainment (Joan Crawford, Mae West, Elia Kazan). He never loses his dry sense of humor throughout.  In one segment he describes a job he secured at MGM, where for $250 a week he was expected to write a screen adaptation of the novel Marriage Is a Private Affair as a vehicle for Lana Turner.  He declares, “I feel like a wet nurse required to deliver a mastodon from a beaver. I have no scruples about receiving such a large salary, because I will most definitely earn it.” He mentions some unsung heroes of show business (such as Alla Nazimova) who are just begging to be rediscovered.   Particularly fascinating is his story of Laurette Taylor, an American stage and silent film star who originated the role of Amanda Wingfield in the first production of The Glass Menagerie. There is also the recollection of his attempts to bring his play Battle of Angels to the Broadway stage, and it’s truly fascinating; that story is almost indistinguishable from more recent versions of the road to The Great White Way. (#SomeThingsNeverChange…)   Tennessee Rising is not just a biographical piece or a Hollywood gossip session, however.  Williams did indeed have strong political views, particularly in regard to America’s policies during World War II, and we hear them loudly and clearly in this play.  Throughout the piece, Storms’ Williams also makes frequent mentions of his “blue devils”: bouts of anxiety or depression.  There’s also the subject of S-E-X.  While many of Williams’ fictional characters had issues with their own sexuality, Tennessee– despite hearsay to the contrary– was neither apologetic about being gay nor starving for company of the male variety.  Ultimately, Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee WIlliams tells an ageless story: A writer, fascinated by celebrity himself, becomes a star in his own right but gets dismayed when artistic impression is overshadowed by fame and making money.   Indeed, that fame and money only brought additional challenges. (#SomeThingsNeverChange.) That said, when we share our “last call” with Jacob Storms’ Tennessee, we know that this iconic artist was more than willing to undertake those challenges….

Tennessee Rising is performed on a small stage with sparse adornment, probably the most emblematic set pieces of which are a vintage style Smith Corona typewriter and a rocks glass with a half empty bottle of liquor.  The lighting and sound effects are minimal but very effective.  Jacob Storms’ performance is absolutely hypnotic to watch, so no fancy accessories are even needed.  Given Tennessee Williams’ vast body of work, we know that there is enough material to make a follow up.  This reviewer, for one, would love to see that.  Given the play’s open conclusion, we can’t say that Tennessee Rising has a “happy” ending…  but for audiences who can’t get enough of the playwright (like me…), Tennessee Rising is indeed a happy time. 

Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams runs February 19 – April 2, Sundays at 5pm. Running time is 75 minutes. AMT Theater is located at 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Tickets are $35 – $45, and are available at AudienceView Professional (ovationtix.com)

(Photos by Ride Hamilton and Max Ruby.)

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