Great Moments in New York Theater: Tennessee Williams, Cherry Jones, William Petersen and Marsha Mason
My husband and I take note, now and then, of the way that certain people hear the music of particular artists. We love that phrase: “hear the music”. It goes to the power of the artist and their ability to speak directly to us. I don’t always hear the music of the artists that my friends appreciate, deeply; and they, certainly, don’t always hear the music of my favourites. That’s what is so fun about art – the way it touches us, as individuals. Pat, for example, really loves the playwrights Arthur Miller, Richard Greenburg and Shakespeare. Brady has an affinity for J.M. Barrie, David loves Noel Coward, Laura gets Christopher Durang, Jennifer has a thing for Beth Henley. Jane is a Shakespearean. I have read plays by these writers, sat in theaters and enjoyed their plays and respected them, one and all. I respect anyone who can put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard and come up with something – even if the something is something I don’t particularly get.
I get Philip Barry, Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams.
Theirs is the music that I hear.
It isn’t the only music I hear – but I do, indeed, hear their music.
I never saw The Night of the Iguana before 1996 revival of the play. I had read it in college but never seen the film – I think I avoided it because, as early as college, I knew I was an alcoholic. The character of Reverend Shannon was bound to cut too close to home. In 1996, in fact, I was still drinking, and drinking a lot. Nevertheless, I could not let the chance to see Night of the Iguana pass me by, let alone with the cast the Roundabout was boasting.
First of all, the inimitable Cherry Jones was playing Hannah Jelkes, only a year after taking home the Tony award for playing Catherine Sloper. Having fallen in love with her in that show, we weren’t about to miss her in this one. Then, there was Miss Marsha Mason, an actress of whose talent I had been an ardent admirer for many years. Finally, playing Reverend Shannon was a male movie actor who had compelled me since his work in To Live and Die in L.A., William Petersen.
Then there was the little matter of my attachment to Tennesee Williams, one of those playwrights whose words made music for me.
Yeah, we weren’t going to miss this one.
Well, the production was certainly very solid. There were no glaring flaws, though the general response to it was rather lukewarm. Particular among the comments from locals and from critics was that Marsha Mason was miscast, a comment with which I disagreed. She was different from actresses who had played the part in the past but she was wonderful in the role, in my estimation. This lady is one of our most esteemed American actresses and she copies nobody in her creations: she invents every role she plays in the manner that she sees fit; and I found her Maxine to be quiet accessible and very touching. I was so happy to witness her work, live, in the first place – to witness her reinventing a role made famous by Bette Davis and Ava Gardner was especially significant for me.
Cherry Jones’ role as Hannah had some similarities to Catherine Sloper but, mostly, it had differences. A plain woman without bells and whistles, Hannah Jelkes had little more than outward appearance in common with the heiress; (though, how Cherry Jones can be believable as a plain woman is beyond me - she is, in real life, one of the great beauties I have seen up close). Hannah had strength in her convictions, self confidence and an outspoken demeanour. The role fit Cherry like a glove and Williams’ language sat on her tongue as a song sits in a singer’s pocket. It was a treat to hear her master the art of Tennessee Williams’ music; in fact, at times it seemed as though she were singing just for me.
In the extremely personal role of Reverend Shannon, though, William Petersen talked to me the strongest. Maybe it is because I understand the part ( I think ) and saw where Petersen and Shannon were going, together. There was so much fragile self loathing, so much sweaty disgust, so much resignation to all that is bad in life, so little hope… how could I not understand? This is a role that I would go back to work for. I understand so much about Reverend Shannon, though there is always more to learn. It has been years since I have acted but I would love to get my tongue around that poetry, get my brain around that man. I think William Petersen understood more about him because he communicated it to me in tacit ways that I dare not share, lest I give away a part of my heart. Suffice it to say that, like Michael Sheen in Amadeus and Daniel Evans in Sunday in the Park with George, it felt as though the character, the actor and I were members of a secret club, that we all understood each other and supported each other in our personal predicament. When an actor touches you that way, it kind of stays with you forever.
Even today, I can think back on the scene when they tie Reverend Shannon to the hammock and Hannah Jelkes sits to the other side of the stage trying to talk him down as he argues and wrestles with the rope. I can still see William Petersen fighting to get loose and I can still hear that incomparable voice and vocal style as Cherry Jones says “There is something positively sensual about the way you writhe…” Almost fifteen years have passed since I watched this moment onstage; and, still, it stays with me. Visceral. Indelible. It stays in my mind and comes out at least once a day.
I guess you could say I heard the music of Williams, Jones AND Petersen that night; and still do.