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MONDAY, FEB. 25, 2008

Play offers glimpse into troubled psyche

As soon as you walk into the Spokane Civic Theatre, you’ll be struck by the set: a ramshackle, tin-roofed tourist hotel, surrounded by verandas on several levels and the Mexican jungle encroaching from the sides.

You’ll feel like you’re already at the Costa Verde Hotel, circa 1940, and this Tennessee Williams play hasn’t even begun.

A little later, set designer and technical director Peter Hardie unleashes his biggest trick: a rainstorm near the end of Act One, with raindrops playing musically on the corrugated roof and cascading down on the verandas.

The rest of this production can’t live up to those professional standards, but this steamy and sometimes lurid 1961 drama does have its gripping moments.

The best scenes come in the second act, after the lead character, Rev. Shannon, played by Ric Benson, has finally gotten his shouting and nervous histrionics out of his system and settles down for a quiet and emotionally layered conversation with the attractive young “spinster,” Hannah, played with subtlety and skill by Manuela Peters.

Rev. Shannon, a defrocked minister, persuades Hannah to open up about her previous romantic encounters. Peters displays the perfect balance of reticence and confessional liberation as she tells two mostly sad and tawdry stories about a couple of lonely and desperate men. Benson, who spends most of the play raging with nervous energy, dials it down touchingly as Shannon, quite clearly, resolves to spare her from the attentions of a third lonely and desperate man: himself.

Director Marianne McLaughlin stages this scene with a quiet intimacy that derives its power from its contrast with most of the scenes that have come before. Up to this point, McLaughlin has filled the stage with Rev. Shannon’s unbalanced ravings, the shrill complaints of a Baptist women’s tourist group, and the sardonic, barking laughter of Maxine, the more or less brazen hussy who owns the hotel, played with maximum cynicism by Melody Deatherage.

All of this dramatic semi-hysteria certainly isn’t McLaughlin’s fault. When it was written in 1961, the play was seen as a wild and semi-scandalous look at the world of Bohemian expatriates. Today, however, it is almost impossible to see it as anything except a mostly unstructured glimpse into the self-loathing mind of Williams himself. Williams pours most of this unhappiness into Shannon, a man who used to be a respected minister and who threw it all away with a weakness for drink and women, and not women of legal age. Yet we even see glimpses of Williams’ tortured mind in the other characters, including Nonno, a doddering poet who wants to complete one last perfect poem before he dies.

All of this does not add up to a warm and fuzzy theatrical experience. I overheard one playgoer at intermission say she couldn’t “buy in” to any of the characters. I felt the same way. Also, it doesn’t help that “Night of the Iguana” is loaded with too-obvious symbolism – Nonno’s final poem, the iguana tied miserably with a rope – and with the relative lack of a plot.

Yet “Iguana” is an eye-opening glimpse into the increasingly unhappy mind of a great artist, which Williams unquestionably was. It’s also a good reminder that the Civic consistently offers production values far beyond the reach of the average community theater.


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