Review of the Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of Tennessee William’s The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
Misfit, freak, geek – whatever the description, it’s easy to see why Alma Winemiller, the delightfully odd and sassy bird who gives The Eccentricities of a Nightingale its title, was so loved by Tennessee Williams. Her indomitable spirit stands bravely against the condescending and conformist influences of a disapproving community. Today, we wouldn’t overthink the bundle of exaggerated mannerisms that is Alma, nor view her penchant for sitting in the park to feed and chat with the birds as a preliminary sign of lunacy. In turn-of-the-20th-century Glorious Hill, Mississippi, just as in many communities, the pressure to fit in creates distinctions beyond class – popularity contests, as it were, in which keeping up appearances is a cardinal rule. It’s easy enough to dismiss the snobbery of the refined upper classes with polished silverware up their backsides, but difficult when it hits home. Yet painful though it is, Alma is steadfast even when subjected to the exasperated paternalism of her father, an Episcopalian minister just a few apoplectic fits removed from Christ-like charity.
The preferred barb is, in the grand tradition of backhanded compliments, that she “sings with feeling.” It’s a calculated blow to a young woman for whom singing is so essential. Here again though we can relate to her, not only in the sense of rooting for the underdog, but in that she is a fortress in her artistic conviction, regardless of whether it’s her father or someone else who beats on the stone walls. Her response to criticism: If you can’t tune into a song’s emotion, you aren’t really singing it. The very point of the song, she’ll insist, is to sing it with feeling. Who can sink an attitude like that?
Tennessee Williams finds a way, of course, through the medium of desire. Presented not with cynicism but with a nuanced blend of skepticism and pathos, the subject of desire isn’t solely about passion but also about how desire is framed by gender roles and societal expectations. With Alma in love with a handsome young society doctor named John Buchanan, the mismatch between her desire and his aloof kindness leads to the impassioned drama we have come to admire in Williams’ work. We get an inverse romance in which the roadblocks to Alma’s and John’s relationship – notably the expectation that he marry someone of his class who is most definitely not an eccentric – become secondary once we realize that we are not dealing with a romance at all. This is a story about coming to terms, good or bad, with unrequited love and desire.
Whether Alma is actually undone by her experiences is, of course, open to interpretation – unlike Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, whose consignment to a mental hospital leaves no doubt as to her disintegration. One perspective might see her achieve a measured proto-feminist triumph; inner liberation from the external victimizing constraints placed on her by society, and the freedom of will to act accordingly. Another would have her psychologically fractured, in which case her newfound sexual liberation (or promiscuity, if that’s how you want to read the play’s implication) is a tragic personal defeat. Yet another might blend the two: Alma as liberated, but too imprisoned in her mind to be aware of it.
Ideally, the theatrical experience will provide audiences with the necessary material to create subjective yet coherent interpretations for themselves. But there’s a discrepancy between text and execution in the Pacific Resident Theatre’s production that left me feeling more ambivalent than convinced, even as I would commend it to theatre-lovers and fans of Tennessee Williams. The recommendation comes in part from technical elements such as Kis Knect’s set design, which relies on cleverness rather than off-stage storage to create the play’s lush settings, and an effective choral score. Even without these, however, the play is worthwhile solely for Ginna Carter’s embodiment of Alma. It’s a knockout performance that easily eclipses that of her fellow cast members.
My reservations stem from the remainder of director Dana Jackson’s cast. Most, like Brad Greenquist in the role of Alma’s father and Mary Jo Deschanel’s mentally ill mother, are effective and command their roles well. But Rita Obermeyer bludgeons her portrayal of Mrs. Buchanan – John’s mother – into an unsubtle, lurid exaggeration that overplays the motherly half of an Oedipal situation and at times veers a little too closely to cartoon villainy. That is less concerning, however, than Andrew Ditz’s portrayal of a young doctor gifted with intellect and charisma while subjected to his mother’s ambition Though wonderfully tall and handsome for the role, his static performance fails to convey the character’s inner life. His John is more of an invertebrate charmer, pushed along by narrative force rather than by the character’s personality. When Alma accuses him of mocking her or lording it over her little club of freaks and geeks, we only have her perspective to rely on. Mr. Ditz’s performance gives us nothing by which to judge his character – and therefore Alma’s reading of his behavior – for ourselves, and little on which to base a deeper consideration of the play’s many interesting questions. For instance, in a story where overt cruelty is easy to recognize and repudiate, could it be that John’s kindness, tempered by an aloof awareness of his superior social position, is the cruelest of all?
Considering that even Ms. Carter’s performance is prone to ambiguity – there are times I wondered whether Alma is really eccentric or if perhaps she inherited her mother’s mental instability – the cast’s shortcomings culminate in an off-putting, almost out-of-place epilogue. If we’re supposed to get an impression of Alma’s hard-earned spiritual wholeness, a testament to her refusal to be a victim, the outcome suggests a sadder fate that parallels her mother’s. Open to interpretation? Sure, if you really insist, but it’s rather difficult to escape the production’s muddled perspective.
Don’t let any of this deter you from seeing Ms. Carter in a generally compelling revival of a master playwright’s work.
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale runs at 8pm Thursdays – Saturdays, and at 3pm on Sundays through August 14, 2016. Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 703 Venice Blvd. in Venice, CA 90291. Tickets are $25 – $34 and can be purchased online at http://www.pacificresidenttheatre.com or by calling (310) 822-8392.
Frédérik Sisa is the Page’s Assistant Editor and Resident Art Critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.