January 29, 2003

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Reality bites
Tennessee Williams and Lanford Wilson expose illusions and dash dreams.

By Robert Avila

BUILDING ON THE success of 1999's Spring Storm, Marin Theatre Company artistic director Lee Sankowich has unearthed another "lost" work from the oeuvre of Tennessee Williams. Mounted in 1937 by the semiprofessional Mummers Theater of St. Louis – when the 26-year-old playwright was still an unknown – Fugitive Kind was only Williams's second full-length effort. MTC's production, which draws on later revisions stored among Williams's papers, is its first professional production since that time.

The story of the outsiders and misfits in a St. Louis transient hotel, Fugitive Kind is a flawed but nonetheless remarkable play not only for the characters and themes it anticipates in Williams's mature work, but as both a typical and idiosyncratic expression of the socially conscious art of the depression era. Mr. Gwendlebaum (Ed Sarafian), a kind but tightfisted, traditional man, runs the hotel with the help of his adopted daughter, Glory (Emily Ackerman). His son, Leo (Richard Gallagher), more than any other character the voice of the playwright, is an idealistic young red whose agitating in the school newspaper gets him expelled and puts him on the outs with his father. Leo determines to confront the injustice of the world as he sees it, while those around him "drink so that they can hide the truth from themselves." Among the hotel's usual collection of lost souls, meanwhile, appears a mysterious stranger, Terry (Scott Coopwood), a suave loner who turns out to be a famous gangster on the lam. Wooing young Glory, he kindles her own desire for escape. Their flight, and Leo's attempt to survive without illusions, represents the play's theme of rebellion against a stifling system. "We're fugitives all right," Terry tells Glory, "but not from justice. We never had any justice."

In addition to gracefully managing an exceptionally fine cast, Sankowich has successfully added some flourishes, like having the guitar-strumming cowboy figure, Texas (Kurt Ziskie) – shades of Val in Orpheus Descending – croon blues songs during scene transitions. This saves the end of the play from the too-strident note struck by Leo's speech, the typical 1930s didacticism that caps the original version. Instead, Texas gently tempers Leo's cry for social justice with some equally apt lines of blues philosophy: "When you wake up in the morning / Hear the ding dong ring / One day after another / Just the same old thing."

Dublin demolished

Lanford Wilson's slyly evocative Book of Days comes across, deliberately, like a Midwestern update of Our Town. But Dublin, Mo., "on the cusp of a new millennium," is no Grover's Corners, even if it looks like it at first. Wilson layers his deceptively straightforward play – receiving its West Coast premiere at TheatreWorks – so masterfully we are apt to ignore passing references early on to Blue Velvet or the bandied dictionary definitions of "crapulous" and "vulpine." Instead, we approach the fictional burg innocently, obliquely, as if via the interstate, travel guide in hand. Dublin greets us with statistics (population, elevation, number of movie houses, etc.) belted out by a grinning chorus, made up of the dozen characters we come to know in the course of the play they are self-consciously staging for us. The stats give way to a series of personalities and relationships, stage-managed by the chorus (which loops the action forward or backward in time as necessary). Gradually, an old-fashioned murder mystery brings things still further into focus.

Local patriarch Walt Bates (James Mantell), owner of the cheese factory, winds up dead in a duck-hunting accident. His bookkeeper, Ruth Hoch (Stacy Ross), suspects murder. Immersed in the community theater's production of George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan, Ruth turns sleuth under the afflatus of Joan of Arc, first implacably pursuing the truth at all costs, then wielding it like her alter ego's sword, with comparable repercussions. The 15th-century collusion of secular and religious authority aligned against Joan has a modern-day parallel in the stifling collaboration of Walt's politically ambitious son James (Gene Carvalho) and the power-conscious fundamentalist minister, Reverend Bobby (Darren Bridgett). Meanwhile, Ruth's husband Len (Mark Phillips), manager of the cheese plant, finds his incipient gourmet-cheese program waylaid by James, among other things a cheese philistine, who wants to replace Len with his good buddy Earl (Richard Bolster) and sell off the connoisseur cheddar to Kraft's taste-obliterating vats.

Director Robert Kelley gets at least serviceable – if not exceptional – performances from his capable cast, but he loses some necessary tension in the father-son relationship between Walt and James. Lulled (a little too much) by the tempo of sweltering summer days – palpably summoned by Andrea Bechert's vibrant-looking trees, which ring a courtyard drenched in vernal blues, against a vista cut by an orange vein of distant mountains – it takes a loud and ominous tornado, courtesy of Steven B. Mannshardt (lights) and Cliff Caruthers (sound), to dispel the soporific aspects of the first act. Fortunately, something subtler than a predictable murder mystery unfolds in the aftermath of Walt's death, in a storm that literally blows away the facade of Our Town harmony: the craftsman gives way to Kraft's man; Ruth's forthrightness is eclipsed by Reverend Bobby's cynical counsel. "This isn't the town we grew up in anymore, honey," Len acknowledges to Ruth. One wonders if it ever was. Wilson pinpoints the way "genius" – Shaw's term for perspicacity backed by principled commitment in any human endeavor – perpetually leads to outsiderhood. For Wilson's individual, like Williams's fugitive, "our town" sooner or later becomes "their town."

'The Fugitive Kind' runs through Feb. 9. Tues., Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat/1, Feb. 8, 2 p.m.); Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m., Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller, Mill Valley. $25-$43. (415) 388-5208. 'Book of Days' runs through Feb. 9. Tues., 7:30 p.m. (no show Tues/4); Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat/1, Feb. 8, 2 p.m.); Sun., 2 p.m. (also Sun/2, 7 p.m.), Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro at Mercy, Mountain View. $20-$43. (650) 903-6000.