Tennessee Williams revisited

Think Tennessee Williams and two images come to mind: Elizabeth Taylor in a white slip, and Marlon Brando in a torn T-shirt yelling "Stella!"

Those scenes from the '50s movie versions of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" have become so iconic that they've almost eclipsed the plays they're based on.

That bothers Michael Kaiser, president of The Kennedy Center, who has made it his mission to reclaim the plays during this summer's "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival.

"We wanted to show this great American playwright from many different perspectives, and to get back to the plays," says Mr. Kaiser. "The idea was for us to get a sense of what it's like to listen to his words, and to the music of his plays, again."

The Kennedy Center, which takes up 17 acres on the banks of the Potomac River, has already staged successful productions of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Now, as the festival enters its final stage Saturday, the center will première its third full-length Williams work, "The Glass Menagerie." The production, which stars Oscar-winning actress Sally Field, runs through Aug. 8.

Tennessee Williams died 21 years ago, but his influence on American theater hasn't diminished. The Southern playwright was nothing if not prolific. He won two Pulitzer Prizes (for "Streetcar" and "Cat"), wrote 23 other full-length plays, as well as several novels, poems, and short stories. His celebrated works are a staple of high school and regional theater, and a revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" starring Ashley Judd, Ned Beatty, and Jason Patric was a popular draw on Broadway this past season.

The Kennedy Center festival aims to provide fresh interpretations of these familiar works. It's something that Kaiser is adept at. His initial foray into festival production spotlighted major works by Stephen Sondheim in the summer of 2002. Then, as now, his goal was to provoke a reexamination of a great artist's work.

"We did those shows," he says, "to dispel the myth that all of his musicals are basically alike. And with Williams, we've gotten people talking about the plays."

That's an understatement.

Patricia Clarkson, an Emmy winning actress, upset many critics with her interpretation of Blanche DuBois in "Streetcar." In the play, the character unexpectedly turns up at her sister's house and asks for a place to stay. Later it emerges that she has been exiled from her home town after seducing a teenager. The character is usually portrayed as fragile, but Clarkson infused DuBois with a steely persona.

Kaiser's take on it? Clarkson "showed that this was not a deranged woman at the start," he says. "There's obviously a lot of tragedy and emotion, but also a lot of comedy. And Patricia's portrayal made the ending so much sadder."

And in "Cat," a story about a former football player (Brick) who shuns his wife and confronts his dying father (Big Daddy), Kaiser points to George Grizzard's electrifying performance of Big Daddy as another unconventional take on a classic character.

"He's typically portrayed as rather brutish, but George plays him much more sympathetically in relation to his son, Brick, and it makes the second act so much deeper emotionally," he says. "He's begging his son to be honest with him, while still maintaining crude characteristics. It's heartbreaking."

Mr. Grizzard, a Tony Award winner and member of the Theater Hall of Fame, welcomed the chance to do the part.

"I had never seen the love between the father and the son before," he admits. "Now, it's clear that this is really about truth and love, that Big Daddy and Brick can fight and still love each other. From what I've seen, this festival has succeeded in exploring Tennessee's works in new ways."

Kaiser believes that audiences today are looking for more realism than when these plays were first presented, half a century ago. There are so many competing entertainment forms today, he adds, that it's much harder to attract people to theater. So far, he's pleased to see audiences "sit for three hours, and listen to the poetry of the language, and not stir, or talk."

The festival has not been limited to these three well-known Williams plays. The Kennedy Center also included a evening of his one-act plays, a solo show starring Richard Thomas adapted from the playwright's letters, and a symposium on his female characters.

Sally Field will play one of Williams's most enduring female roles: Amanda, the tortured single mother trapped in a Depression-era apartment with her two adult children in "The Glass Menagerie." "Sally's performance will make people sit up and really pay attention to this wonderful role!" he smiles. "And discover again her outstanding dramatic talent."

Next year, Kaiser plans another departure by doing a festival about 1940s America. It will include a revival of the play "Mr. Roberts" and the new musical, "Regina," based on Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," starring Patti LuPone.

"We've hired wonderful actors and directors who are doing their own, valid interpretations," he says. "Maybe you'll agree with them, and maybe you won't. And that is the point - to stir up some angst."

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