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Theater review: Tennessee's first flower blooms at the Allways Lounge

While the smart set at the Tennessee Williams Festival is settling into watch the third part of John Biguenet’s Katrina Trilogy, Mold, in a small bar room/theater Off-Off-Royal Street, Tennessee Williams’ first produced play – A Battle of Angels – is given a compelling production at the Allways Lounge Theater.

The Allways has become the Southern Rep of the St. Claude and Bywater set, and director Glenn Meche’s production keeps up the high standards the theater has set for its small space. The tale which most of the world knows from its much re-written version as Orpheus Descending and the film The Fugitive Kind is still riveting theater in the Circle Repertory revival version presented by the Allways.

From the moment the excellent Nicole Gruter as Beulah Cartwright and Lillian Claire Dodenhoff as Dolly Bland burst gossiping into the mercantile store, the audience is swept back in time and up to the Mississippi Delta. A more perfect pair of haughty Southern matrons could hardly be wished for. As soon as Diana Shortez sweeps into the room as the flawed and fallen Cassandra Whiteside, the hammer is cocked and ready for the volley of familiar Williams themes of sex, death and redemption to follow. Shortez, with her commanding physicality and chameleon abilities, is perfectly cast as the the loose-moralled scapegoat, and by the last act the play’s one-woman chorus.

At the end of the first act, one wishes Eli Grove as snake-skinned Val Xavier had some of the animal magnetism of Shortez, but he brings his best duck-tailed Cool Hand Luke to the table, and as the complexities of his character are revealed through the remainder of the play, he wins the viewer over with a brooding Kerouacian charm. The strong cast of women delivers the reflection of the character’s reptilian charm in their own performances. He is convincing as the (one part Tennessee) thoughtful drifter with a head full of ideas running from a troubled past.

The delight of the night is Veronica Russell as Myra Torrance. Her slow transformation from a bitter shopkeeper with a loveless marriage and a dying husband as reptilian as Xavier’s jacket into the lovelorn victim of Xavier’s charm is at the center of the plot, and she carries the spotlight with a quiet but powerful performance. Years seem to melt from her face as she moves backward in time from pinch-faced shopkeeper to the charmingly coquettish victim of Xavier’s promise of escape.

Rebecca Myers as the deeply religious Vee Talbot wears the character’s convictions well and does a fine job of carrying the difficult task of tying together the almost Old Testament bombastic imagery – from Xavier’s snakeskin jacket to the frightening cane-of-God Doug Mundy wields mostly off-stage – in this tale of temptation and fall set at Easter Week, with the wild Whiteside making whoopee up at the town’s Golgotha. The text is freighted with symbolism almost past the Plimsoll mark, but Myers and the rest of the supporting cast manage to keep the bowl of apples off the table and give Russell and Grove the space to play out their doomed romance. There is not a weak performance in the ensemble, which also includes Barry Bradford as a genuinely threatening Sheriff Talbott and Patrica Raw and Rebecca Rae as the comic spinster sisters. Director Glenn Meche has shaped a fine cast into a compelling night of drama.

The Allways’ small proscenium theater is turned sideways, as it was for last year’s The Future is a Fancy Land Place, and while you might find yourself rubbing your neck at the end of the night, it gives the actors room to move and the feeling the audience is in a much larger space without the loss of intimacy.

While far from the center of the Tennessee Williams weekend at the The Hotel Monteleone, festival goers would do well to find their way down to St. Claude Avenue. The rest of us have until April 6 to see the root of Tennessee’s genius in its first blossom: The play continues Thursday-Saturday over the next two weekends. Click here for more.

This article by Mark Folse is reposted from the writer's blog, Odd Words, which is a content partner of NolaVie.