A muted congratulations is in order to the spanking-new Theatre L’Acadie for finding the perfect play to go with a real-life pandemic and impending social shutdown: Tennessee Williams’ “The Two Character Play,” the writer’s rarely staged meditation on his familiar obsessions, including mortality, radical isolation, the pull of the dark past and the plight of the sensitive misfit in a harsh world. It’s an imperfect but immensely gripping tale with an end-of-days mood, giving it a hefty relevance as we contemplate our own suddenly frightening and diminished world. The great test facing its fearful protagonists—simply going outside—is disturbingly pertinent at this moment.
The work (then titled “Out Cry”) had its U.S. premiere in 1971 at the late and lamented Ivanhoe Theater, a charming old playhouse that has since been converted into a liquor store in an act of perfectly legal civic vandalism. Williams said of the play that it’s “a history of what I went through in the sixties”—a decade of declining popularity and emotional instability for the writer—“transmuted into the predicament of a brother and sister.” He also described it in an interview as “my most beautiful play since ‘Streetcar.’” Legendary Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy came out of retirement to give the show a laudatory review, thus single-handedly extending the Ivanhoe run. But the play under either name never caught on with the public, which found it opaque and talky, even by late Tennessee Williams standards.
Indeed, the play has its slow spots and moments of gothic, self-indulgent melodrama, sometimes verging on self-parody. A third character representing the “normal” outside world would strengthen and anchor this script. But despite the work’s excesses, the current production pulls us in tighter and tighter, until by the end we feel almost suffocated by the sense of tragic inevitability woven into the character and situation of its two entangled sibling protagonists, brother Felice and sister Clare. Under Kaitlyn Eve Romero’s sure-handed direction, the two-person cast dances gracefully between the work’s dreamlike, surreal dramatic structure and the characters’ very concrete pain and vulnerability.
The self-consciously avant-garde storyline—which borrows equally from Pirandello, Albee and Beckett, plus a pinch of Sartre’s “No Exit”—takes the form of a play-within-a-play. The title characters, abandoned by the rest of their traveling theater company in a decrepit theater in a no-name town, must try as best they can to improvise their way through the play that Felice has written, a drama in which they play themselves. While waiting for the curtain to go up, the siblings—he, alternately domineering and defeated; she, diva-like and dependent—squabble, act out, self-medicate and otherwise show just how fragile and traumatized they both are and how bound together, like a single unhealthy organism. The drama they perform (titled, of course, “The Two Person Play”) travels backward and forward in time, revealing the act of family violence that led to their mutual PTSD and depicting their agonizing struggle to leave the house that both protects them from the world and imprisons them in the past. The two real-time acts take place on a cluttered, skeletal set, skillfully devised by Brandii Champagne, that leaves the shell-shocked and shame-filled pair exposed to the probing eyes they sense everywhere.
Daniel Westheimer and Emily Daigle (who also designed the deliberately mismatched costumes) tear into the demanding roles of Felice and Clare, holding nothing back. Through voice and gesture, they convey the characters’ Blanche DuBois-like combination of gentility, decadence and passivity that has left them helpless to cope with the sometimes ugly realities of life. These are rich and soulful performances, drawing us into the psychic turmoil of two creative, damaged people who are literally afraid of their own shadow, yet find the courage to enact the torment and terror that define their existence.
By the end of “The Two Character Play,” we see that the trapped, paralyzed siblings have come to their moment of decision. If they cannot live in a flawed and perilous world, then they are doomed to die. If they cannot die, then they are doomed to live. And if they must live, then they might as well do so bravely and honestly. It’s a powerful message right now, as we seek to respond to our own very real crisis not as panicky, powerless victims but as dignified, ethical and compassionate human beings. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Theatre L’Acadie at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport, (773)935-6875, theatrelacadie.com, $25. Through March 29.