The Night of the Iguana

Tennessee Williams (photo: Yousuf Karsh)

It is an artistic exercise of a particular kind to comb through the books and plays of the past and to find those that achieve resonance—or a fresh reading—for contemporary audiences. American Repertory Theater has taken that tack in past seasons (a production of Paradise Lost, written by Clifford Odets 75 years ago, for example) and has done so again with the current run of The Night of the Iguana, by Tennessee Williams.

While the standard bearer Williams plays—The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—continue to stay in rotation on stages all over the world, Iguana is less commonly seen. First produced on Broadway in 1961 and then made into a film by John Huston in 1964, it had its most recent revival on Broadway in 1996 (and featured ART’s own Cherry Jones in the lead.)

Iguana is Williams-rich in those signatory themes that make a Williams play so identifiable: emotional struggle, relationship dysfunction, psychological breakdown and angst, the unconscious made real, the deep dive into the human shadow, all of it unfolding beneath a weather system of the Southern Christianity that is so elemental in Williams’ world. But something emerged in this production that spoke very personally to me and felt particularly relevant to this moment in time that would not happen as easily with the iconic Williams plays. Iguana made room for me to feel the play—and Williams—in a new way.

Set in 1940 in Mexico, Iguana offers a glimpse into a pre-World War II, ex pat world. The play unfolds at a second rate beachside resort on the west coast of Mexico where the characters come together: a struggling Episcopal reverend/tour guide, the lusty widow/proprietress, an itinerant artist and her 97-year-old poet grandfather, and a revenge-seeking, protective chaperone traveling with her niece Charlotte. Wandering in and out are locals, a family of Germans, and a captured iguana tied up off stage.

The personal struggle played out in the conflicted character of Reverend Larry Shannon is brought to the surface by the female characters that encircle him, each an archetype: Widow Maxine speaks to fundamental physical and sexual needs; teenager Charlotte is seduction, temptation and the forbidden; her chaperone Judith represents the harsh mother and fury-inducing, female gatekeeper. But it is Hannah—homeless, unmoneyed, living in the moment, devoted to serving Nonno in his last years—who offers a moral center in this allegorical journey. Played by Amanda Plummer, Hannah takes on a spectre-like presence of much needed maturity, groundedness and compassion.

In a play full of “incomplete people” (a phrase Williams used to describe people like himself) struggling through a whole lot of unfinished business, Hannah possesses a steadying sense of herself that the other characters lack. Yes, her life is a struggle, and yes, she has her own demons that she has had to confront. But she has achieved a level of self knowledge and awareness that sets her apart from everyone else in the play. Her presence is a transcendent antidote to the emotional fever pitch unfolding around her on that Mexican veranda. As Williams’ mother Edwina once said of her son’s works, “There exists no savage act about which my son has not written. And yet his plays are filled with beauty. And they offer truth, truth that many of us do not like to face.”

On a personal level, Iguana provides an added dimension of meaning by mirroring our current national circumstances of chaos, rage and incoherence. Hannah navigates these difficult encounters with patience, self-honesty and calmness, qualities in short supply these days. Even Williams’ irritating German tourists who appear sporadically to exult in the radio-transmitted words of Der F├╝hrer or to cheer at news of London being bombed share an uncanny resemblance to their current analog, mindless Trump supporters.

But of course the play is so much more than a mirror in time because Williams is, after all, one of our greatest playwrights. And what attention to detail! On display in the lobby at the Loeb are copies of letters Williams wrote to directors and actors in both the Broadway run and the movie that was made a few years later. Take a moment to read these to see a mind that considered everything in such careful detail and with such focused intentionality. Nothing escaped Williams’ view, including the hue of make up he wanted for Hannah that would speak to her extended hours spent outdoors painting.

Several friends saw the play during its preview run and were not enthusiastic. Whatever wasn’t working seems to have been solved by opening night. I thought of them when I read this passage from an essay Williams wrote in 1961 as the play was set to open:

A play that is more of a dramatic poem than a play is bound to rest on metaphorical ways of expression. Symbols and their meaning must be arrived at through a period of time which is often a long one, requiring much patience, but if you wait out this period of time, if you permit it to clear as naturally as the sky after a storm, it will reward you.

ART’s new production in Cambridge is full of other stars: James Earl Jones, Elizabeth Ashley, Dana Delany, Bill Heck. Set designer Derek McLane and director Michael Wilson should also be included on that list. The play runs through March 18.