The Review: La Femme Theatre’s A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur
It’s a gorgeous set that we first we gaze upon, courtesy of scenic and lighting designer Harry Feiner (Mint’s Days to Come), as we wait for A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur to arrive at the station known as the Theatre at St. Clement’s. Intricate and crowded like the apartment described in this 1976 Tennessee Williams play but not as colorful garish, we realize once the actors make their way onto the set, that the tightness and clutter may become something of an obstacle rather then a blessing. The cast seem to spend more time navigating the narrow passageways watching out for corners and edges to avoid, instead of finding their way through the complex text. And it is complex and wordy in a way that makes the twists and turns harder to understand. Impulse and intention gets wasted and lost in the depth and disarray of space and the small short pathways through the mess obstruct understanding, giving us a preview to what is around the corner in this La Femme Theatre Production. Such a shame, as there are a few strong and provocative ideas and performances shuffling about on that short trolley ride to the park, but much like the pointless meandering of their lonely neighbor, this Lovely Sunday derails almost as soon as the ride begins.
The play, written just after the autobiographical Vieux Carré, was created to be a companion piece to Demolition Downtown, a short work that had been published in Esquire in 1971, but with the back wall criss-crossing the view like the fire escapes of New Orleans, a visual we’ve become accustomed to in the far better and more iconic A Streetcar Named Desire, A Lovely Sunday… rarely achieves the same level of poetic descent that we have learned to expect of Williams. It’s beautifully spoken, but unfocused and flat, at least with this awkwardly staged production.
Set on a hot summer morning in St. Louis in the mid-1930’s with harmoniously humid and heavy original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery (Be More Chill), the play fixes its head on the struggles of four very different women and the aloneness they each feel. Dorothea, or “Dottie”, portrayed like a Blanche DuBois stand-in by Jean Lichty (Cherry Lane’s The Traveling Lady) is a middle-aged civics teacher, transfixed with the idea of holding onto her youth and beauty with hundreds of bending calisthenics, but mainly as a route to finding a hopefully romantic escape from her life of worry and stress. She holds tight to the dream of finding her way into the passenger seat of a flying cloud, owned and operated by her knight in shining armor, the school principal T. Ralph Ellis. She clings to her hope, desperately, that he will take her away from all this heat and heaviness, but we see in the eyes of her good-hearted hard-of-hearing roommate, Bodey, played with unrelentingly inventiveness by the always fascinating Kristine Nielsen (Broadway’s Present Laughter, PH’s Hir) that it might just be one sad slice of folly: a short run, when it really should be long. Magnificently digging out as much gold as she can from the text, Nielsen’s Bodey has another dream, one that she holds just as tightly. It’s an opposing one though, and no matter how many times she is told to give up on her hope, she tunes it out, as if her hearing aid only delivers news that she wants to hear and believe. Bodey, you see, desperately wants Dottie to accept the somewhat unclear advances of her cigar-smoking twin brother Buddy. It’s touchingly obvious that Bodey hopes that cementing a partner for her brother, something that she doesn’t believe is possible for herself, might just give her a chance of being part of something bigger than all the endless dinners for one she sees in her future.
Hope is the key here, and as directed by Austin Pendleton (Perry Street Theatre’s The Saintliness of Margery Kemp), that ideal gets put to an extreme test on this particular Sunday, when the paper arrives into Bodey’s hands and a surprise guest shows up at the door in the haughty form of Helena. Both are uninvited and Bodey does her best to shield her frail roommate from the news. Portrayed by the masterful Annette O’Toole (2ST’s Man From Nebraska), Helena is a well dressed upscale snake, wasting no time sizing up the space and looking down her nose at everything, almost with glee. With such tenacity, she states that she has important business to attend to with Dottie, a plan in her finely coiffed head that would benefit them both, while also holding tight to some news that just can’t wait until the gossipy girls gather on Monday. It’s a tailor-made performance by O’Toole, who handles it solidly and slyly, with her desperation played as smoothly as her finely sewn outfit. It’s a pretense that will certainly get thrashed with powder and liquid by the smarter-than-she-acts Bodey. Their chemistry in the tightness of the apartment never seems entirely rooted in awareness and reality as the close proximity to one another and their continuous coming-together at the table never really gives them room to actively portray their opposition to each other’s presence. It becomes clear that both are trying, although selfishly in their own way, to protect the southern bell and her illusionary complex from crumbling before their very eyes, but their hopes are diametrically opposed and will never unite. Holding strong against one another, even when Helena is confronted with the strange Miss Gluck, the German manic-depressive immigrant who lives above and moves about the apartment without purpose, played heavily by Polly McKie (Irish Rep’s The Home Place), Helena can’t help but to drive forward. She draws in two deep breaths to get her back in her skin, and pushes through, hoping to not prolong this discussion, as she has a deep sensitivity to heat and bright lights, but more importantly in the bigger picture, a fear-based aversion to dining solo.
Each one is frightened to their core by the aloneness of lost identity and self-inflicted independence, causing each to hold hard and strong to their faulty dreams and illusions, just like almost every tragic heroine in a Williams play. Bit unlike the magnificent Gillian Anderson in the phenomenal Young Vic/St. Ann’s Warehouse production of A Streetcar Named Desire that graced our shores back in 2016, Lichty fails to give Dottie much room to maneuver and fall. Rather than holding up her hope to the light of the Sun-day, pretending, as Anderson most incredibly did, that everything is under control and going to go her way in the end, even while shaking under its weight, this Dottie seems to nervously know how this Lovely Sunday will end. She channels the neurotic instability from the first anxious ringing of the phone without ever really presenting the girlish naivety that we need to believe exists somewhere inside. Her blind infatuation should at least attempt to hold her, even superficially at the beginning, giving her a place up high to fall from. As directed by Pendleton, her journey into smashed despair is but a short ride on the cool streetcar to defeat. Trapped like a stuffed bird in a cage, this Blanche is already in desperate need of the kindness of strangers. From the beginning, she climbs about a trolley ride to Creve Coeur, but it has already arrived at the end of the line, seemingly one stop later, barely giving her ample time to settle into her seat.