Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Williams. Directed by David Auburn.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The night I met her I heard a noise like castanets in the distance."
Paul Fitzgerald and Rebecca Brooksher; photo: Christy Wright
A Tennessee Williams romantic comedy is just the thing for a late summer evening. Youíve grown tired in the heat of the day. Youíve had enough of ritual drama and musical extravaganza. You want a sip of something cool. In Stockbridge, MA at the Berkshire Theatre Groupís main stage there is "Period of Adjustment" which is a Christmas Eve play about "love and marriage" and "the fine mis-mating of a him and her and I wish I were in love again."
Williamsí only self-proclaimed comedy - a few of his plays are unintentionally funny - it was a modest hit in 1960 (written in 1958 and 1959) and the transition work for director George Roy Hill who directed it in the romantic old Helen Hayes Theater and then as his introduction to the art of film-making in 1962. The play, in three acts (condensed to two acts for this production) takes place in a suburban house near Memphis on Christmas Eve, a house built over a cavern that sometimes threatens to collapse, a symbol of the state of two marriages that counterpoint one another in this play. The original reviews were mediocre and the play only ran for 132 performances garnering Tony nominations for its two actresses, Barbara Baxley and Rosemary Murphy.
The play is sandwiched between Sweet Bird of Youth (1958) and Night of the Iguana (1962) and it is generally considered to be the harbinger of change in Williamsí work, the turning point between his great plays and his slow descent into modernism. As his only comedy it is an interesting proposition. It certainly is his final play in the series of southern/St. Louis based plays in his canon. After this the wider world was his canvas, his soft-focus lens was his tool and poetry was the language of choice. He would never be as popular or successful again, so it was a good thing to write comedy and set the stage for laughter, even if it is uncomfortable at times.
This production cuts out a great many small points in the script, scrapping three rather negligible characters, a few important moments and a slightly different opening and ending. The cuts are not bothersome, but I always wish that revivals of plays would leave the play alone. Odd things are out, such as the implied gay relationship between the two ex-army flyers, the possibility of misbehavior on the part of the young bride, Isabel, which has actually brought about the end of her nursing career, Isabelís bonding with the family dog and her conversations with the neighbors.
The cuts actually improve the play, making it cleaner and more focused. Sometimes a blue pencil and a goal provide you with a better play at the other end and that seems to have happened somewhere for this production.
Paul Fitzgerald plays Ralph Bates, owner of the host home for this unexpected party of young marrieds. He has the difficult role of man with an angle, man with a loaded gun. He is on the verge of divorce and hosting his best friend and bride in spite of his obvious need to wrap up things at home and get moving. Fitzgerald plays with a mastery that is delicious. His comic timing and his dramatic gestures are both believable and well-handled. He knows his stuff and he makes the most of his role.
Similarly C.J. Wilson plays George Haverstick, the bridegroom on the run. Traditionally the role of George is seen as younger than Ralph but in this production things are reversed and the age gap much wider. This adds a new dimension to the problems in the new marriage, a young girl with a somewhat older man, a man whose experience in the romance department may have been even more exaggerated than usual. Wilson does his robust guy role with panache. He is most convincing at all times and the age difference between the men is telling only in the plans department which doesnít come off as believable as it might if they were closer in age.
Rebecca Brooksher plays the mostly blushing bride Isabel brilliantly. Her interminable Act One monologue is so specifically Williams in its construction, so very much Blanche DuBois with foot in mouth disease, that if she were less able to sustain the humor in it we would have a very different play. Brooksher is a wonderful word vomiter and she keeps the humor alive as she spews out her story in fragments that only coalesce because the actress clearly understands how Williamsí mind works.
Ralphís wife Dorothea is played with awkward charm by Anney Giobbe. She doesnít appear until late in the play and her appearance changes everything for Isabel who suddenly emerges as the enlightened hostess, the fragile yet willing handmaiden, and the caretaker deluxe. Giobbeís work as the distraught wife is one more crisp and pristine presentation in this play. She adds to the fabric of the Williamsí wall-hanging in its suburban frame.
Dorotheaís parents have one lengthy and aggressive scene. They are played by Mark Corkins and Mia Dillon. Williams has made them hateful people and both Dillon and Corkins succeed admirably in their mission to honor the authorís intent. Corkins is odd but Dillon is just right in this small role. You hate her from her entrance to her exit and beyond.
On a fine, if clumsy, set designed by R. Michael Miller, director David Auburn has done a fine job of bringing to life this rarely seen masterwork. He has a deft hand at comedy it seems and the right cast to work with. He moves his people into difficult physical relationships at times and brings them out again without seeming theatrical; there is a natural look and feel to the show.
Wade Laboissonniereís costumes evoke the early 1960s easily, especially in the womenís coats. Mary Louise Geiger finds subtle moods for her lighting and just enough color to keep the play grounded in reality. One awkward fade up for an exterior scene was unfortunate, however.
It isnít often we are given a chance to see a play of this caliber, this pedigree and the chance must not be missed. Though this same situation has graced any number of television comedies, this play itself is not a situation comedy. The work is much too good to be mistaken for that. This is a play, a truly funny play, in which the people are real and not caricatures, there are no lessons to learn and no laugh-track to guide your reactions. Here, in the live theater, you are allowed to bring your own judgement and your own wisdom to bear upon the proceedings. Donít ever miss such a rare opportunity. Iím glad I didnít.
Brooksher and C.J. Wilson; photo: Christy Wright
Fitzgerald and Anney Giobbe; photo: Colleen Hughes
Period of Adjustment plays at the Berkshire Theatre Groupís mainstage on Route 107 and Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA through September 3. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576