TV's Joan Van Ark stars in `The Night of the Iguana'. Latest in Williamstown's cycle of Tennessee Williams revivals displays irony, humor

The Williamstown Theatre Festival's devotion to Tennessee Williams is a late-blooming but ongoing romance. The first flickerings of adoration appeared in the festival's adolescent years, when the company mounted ``Period of Adjustment,'' and ``The Night of the Iguana'' just two years after the plays' New York premi`eres. That was in the 1960s.

The theater's real passion for this celebrated Southern man of letters has surfaced more recently, however.

In the past five years, Williamstown has presented ``The Glass Menagerie,'' starring Joanne Woodward; ``A Streetcar Named Desire,'' featuring Blythe Danner and Sigourney Weaver; ``Summer and Smoke,'' with Christopher Reeve; and a creation of its own devising, ``Tennessee Williams: A Celebration'' - a sort of greatest hits of ... , starring, well, lots of stars, which is another of Williamstown's passions.

Now comes a ``Night of the Iguana'' featuring Joan Van Ark, who is probably best known as the blond and delicate Val in television's ``Knots Landing.'' Here she plays the ``stout and swarthy'' Maxine, a lusty and possessive hotel proprietress (portrayed by Ava Gardner in the 1964 John Huston film version).

Van Ark's Maxine is tough and sensuous - a barefoot scrapper who runs her seedy resort hotel on Mexico's west coast (the play is set in 1940) with a blend of pride and pragmatism. She pushes her bellboys around like overgrown children; they're her property. She may be a bit dim about the inner resources and demons of her man - the tortured Rev. Shannon (James Naughton), a defrocked Southern minister who leads sleazy south-of-the-border tours for schoolteachers. But she does know enough to recognize when she's got competition. And she's got it in the form of Hannah Jelkes, the square-shouldered Nantucket spinster who washes up on the hotel's stoop pleading poverty and displaying her own brand of survival skills. Jelkes is played here by Maria Tucci.

If Maxine's resilience spills out of a robust intimacy with earthy passions, then Hannah succeeds by transcending them. Hannah is one of Williams's most durable and imperturbable heroines, and Tucci plays her with a dazzling intelligence and a bracing lack of sentiment. It becomes fully clear why Shannon loves her.

Ms. Tucci's is also a performance that helps steer an almost rudderless production that credits two directors - Walton Jones and Margaret Booker - and notes additional help from John Malkovich but could have used a stronger directorial hand.

Unlike Blanche in ``A Streetcar Named Desire,'' Hannah is a moth who knows how to avoid the flame; unlike Miss Alma in ``Summer and Smoke,'' she doesn't succumb to the baser side of human nature. Hannah's strength is wrought from some hardy sense of compromise and sacrifice.

Williams wrote ``The Night of the Iguana'' nearly 15 years after ``A Streetcar Named Desire.'' And, indeed, while it has desperation written all over it - the preacher undergoes a breakdown of sorts - there's less a sense of futility at the play's center than a cleareyed, almost humorous acceptance of the way things are. Of course, this being Williams, the way things are isn't all that rosy.

Hannah is another one of Williams's sensitive, romantic souls (she is a painter, and her aging grandfather is a poet) brutalized by the world. But instead of chronicling the decline and fall of this delicate flower, Williams gives us a heroine who has things pretty much together.

This Hannah arrives on stage with flags flying, resources at the ready. She aids and comforts her grandfather and goes head to head with Maxine, and wins. And, most significantly, she lures Shannon back from the brink of spiritual and psychological disintegration. ``You need to believe in something or someone,'' she tells him.

It is a seduction by the sheer force of her sanity that forms the play's dramatic fulcrum.

Mr. Naughton is particularly adept with the lighter aspects of his role. His reference to the ``nice and quiet asylum'' ripples with the right amount of irony. When he flings his clerical collar to the ground, it gets a laugh. Unfortunately, Shannon's darker side - his ``spooks,'' as Williams puts it - elude Naughton's grasp. He's better when he's sitting quietly at Hannah's feet learning from, and learning to love, this ``cool hustler'' who copes with life's ravages with calm, almost Oriental stoicism.

Tucci's portrayal is a marvel. When Hannah ultimately rejects Shannon's offer of physical affection, it's a decision convincingly born of self-knowledge. We see and understand that she is a self-made woman.

Christopher Barrecca's tin-roofed hotel set is fetchingly squalid in that languid tropical way. But Stephen Strawbridge's rigid lighting should be more sensitive to the play's shifting moods. There is a terrifically splashy rainstorm that ends the first act and lasts well into the intermission - to the delight and fascination of several festivalgoers.

``The Night of the Iguana'' continues through tomorrow.

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