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Unfettered Musings and Exclamations: Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings

 

Theater Review

by William S. Gooch

The first place winner of Stage and Cinema's 2008 Theater Review Writing Contest

 

What happens when a great playwright is free from artistic restraint and past inhibitions? Does he stay with the tried-and-true formula that made his pockets rich or does he take a chance on presenting his truth in raw, revealing language not made to sweeten the ears of devotees and critics? In Small Craft Warnings, Tennessee Williams chooses the latter.

 

With dialogue enriched by brute honesty and pathos, Small Craft Warnings examines the hopelessness of lives filled with regret and unresolved trauma. Set in a small, rundown seaside bar, wretched barroom regulars kvetch, postulate, and ruminate about missed opportunities and life’s inequities. Based on the earlier one-act play Confessional, Small Craft Warnings also gives insight into what it means to live on the precipice of disaster and ruin.

 

Many of Williams’ earlier plays–Suddenly Last Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire–have a homosexual subtext that is often veiled in mystery and abstraction. Moral constraints of the 1940s and 50s didn’t afford Williams the latitude to delve openly into gay characterizations. (The APA defined homosexuality a subversive behavior until the late 1960s.) With Small Craft Warnings, which opened Off-Broadway in 1972, Williams abandons gay abstractions for a realism that is reflective of the sexual revolution and his own life. 

 

Small Craft Warnings has the raw edginess and guttural outburst found in similar plays of the 70s–Manuel Pinero’s Short Eyes and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls come to mind. Small Craft Warning is also a great example of a hybrid style that Williams was experimenting with in the 1970s. This style is a melding of the flowing banter of his earlier style synchronized with the later experimental phase in which mood and reverie are more important than complex characters and plot.

 

This production staged by the White Horse Theater Company is notable for its respect and understanding of the cultural morays in which Williams sets the work. The men have the confident swagger of the ‘me generation,’ and the women, though liberated in actions, still need male companionship to help them through hard, lonely times.

 

Linda S. Nelson portrays Leona as a brassy, out-of-control drunk who uses bravado and alcohol to mask deep feelings of remorse and abandonment. Nelson’s performance though forced and out of focus at times, is admirable in its exuberance and flailing energy.

 

As Quentin, the gay screenwriter, Christopher Johnson brings an authentic candor to a character that believes life holds no surprises. Quentin is the archetype of the well-heeled, jaded gay man of the 1970s who has had too many sexual encounters that lead to nowhere.

 

The other standout in the cast is Andrea Maulella as Violet. Maulella completely embodies the character of Violet evidenced from her despairing moans for help to the tremulous musings on her abused life. Violet is a character study in neglect and emotional abuse. At moments there is clarity and foresight, but the abuse runs too deep to support long-term lucidity.

 

In Small Craft Warnings, Tennessee Williams normalizes loneliness and desperation. And even though there is some small light, the glow may be too small to eradicate the midnight of the forlorn soul.

 

 
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