Fans of Tennessee Williams probably did their little happy dance on seeing Hart House Theatre’s announcement of its 2011/2012 season, with not one but two productions honouring the timeless American playwright. And if you’re not a fan, well, there’s always next year. The first Williams offering for the year was David Ferry’s The Gentleman Caller, an original Hart House tribute to the troubled life of the man responsible for classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Glass Menagerie. There is an intrinsic link between the two plays, as Ferry returned to the Hart House stage to round out the current season with Williams’ Night of the Iguana, except this time he took on the lead role and left the direction to Jeremy Hutton. The six or so fans of the Canadian sitcom Dan for Mayor may recognize Ferry as the character of Fern, but he is also a Gemini-nominated, DORA award-winning stage actor who proves to be a true pleasure to watch in his latest role as Reverend Larry Shannon.
If you aren’t familiar with the premise, don’t despair; neither was I. I found myself frantically leafing through the programme for a brief synopsis as the lights began to dim. Even though it’s not immediately apparent what’s happening in the play, it is one that takes you on a journey with the characters while never leaving the vicinity of a tiki villa, fully furnished with palm trees, hammocks, and wicker furniture. It is a play that is not as much about plot as it is about character development and interactions, but the result is anything but stagnant.
Larry Shannon, the Texan reverend-cum-tour guide, finds himself back at a cheap Mexican hotel, the Costa Verde, on his latest adventure, with a bus full of irritated women breathing down his neck (and not in a good way). Worn out by the heat and the shrill voice of accompanying teacher Judith Fellowes (Lada Darewych), he is greeted by his old friend, the free-spirited hotel manager Maxine Faulk (Allegra Fulton). She tries to get Shannon to let loose, following his statutory rape charge against a minor by the name of Charlotte Goodall (Kathryn Alexandre), being locked out of his church following his atheist sermons, and being labelled a “defrocked minister” by many, including the critical, unforgiving Miss Fellowes. Following the death of Maxine’s husband, she hopes that Shannon might consider managing the hotel with her, but is soon threatened by the arrival of an old man (Peter Higginson) and his alluring granddaughter, Hannah Jelkes (Kelly Bolt). Maxine does all in her power to prevent Hannah and her nonno from taking up quarters in her hotel, while Shannon instantly becomes smitten by her and takes her fate into his hands, even though he’s not quite sure how to come to terms with his own. Shannon is also forced to fight off a persistent Charlotte, who claims she still loves him, and he is further persecuted by Miss Fellowes, Charlotte’s caretaker on the trip, for his indecent encounter with the girl.
While all of the characters seem relatively happy on the surface—be it Hannah’s enriching travels with her aging grandfather, Maxine’s carefree and indulgent lifestyle, or Shannon’s ability to charm the ladies wherever he goes—they all harbour deeper feelings of discontent and loneliness that become apparent as the play unfolds. While Night of the Iguana is quite humorous at times and is indebted to the great charisma of the cast—including a minor subplot involving overexcited German tourists whom Shannon dismisses as Nazis—there is always a lingering sense of despair: it is quite obvious that none of the characters will ever be able to find a true and lasting source of happiness in their lives. This is a play about people at the end of their rope, much like the iguanas being strangled to death by the Mexican hotel workers out on the cliff. The metaphor is used over and over again throughout the play, and is just one of the many clever textual tropes Williams uses as a playwright.
Ferry truly shines as the down-and-out protagonist, and even though Shannon’s flaws run rampant throughout the play, one cannot help but admire him, just as Hannah Jelkes admits she respects him despite everything he has committed in the past. Ferry showcases both flashiness and despondence with such ease as he effortlessly makes the audience feel his suffering while still endearing himself to them with his charm. His delivery often comes across as completely improvised, not in the sense of being unprepared, but in that his performance is so natural it hardly seems like acting at all.
Fulton, who also has an impressive list of television, film, and theatre credits, plays an equally complex character, but one with whom it is difficult to sympathize. At times, there are awkward silences following Fulton’s delivery, perhaps waiting for a laugh that never comes, but this is ultimately due to her character’s somewhat cold and bitter persona. Fulton expertly conveys Maxine’s desperation while simultaneously trying to keep her pride intact, and in the end she is finally able to win the audience over to some degree.
Bolt’s performance as the very prim and proper yet surprisingly quick-witted Hannah was a crowd favourite. Her deadpan delivery and convincing vulnerability, set in the context of the onstage relationship between Bolt and Higginson, is truly heartwarming. Darewych’s comedic turn as the tight-ass teacher at the mercy of a man who won’t forfeit the bus key is also one of the play’s more prominent sources of entertainment, as is the ridiculous, lustful affair propelled by the naïve Charlotte, convincingly portrayed by Theatre Erindale alumna Kathryn Alexandre. While there are a number of standout performances, each member of the ensemble cast adds his or her own carefully nuanced contribution to the storyline, so that even such minor characters as the slightly alcoholic tour manager (Tim Walker) resonate with the audience long after they have left the stage.
In a production that is so reliant on dialogue and character development, it is crucial for all of the actors and actresses to do their part, and the cast of Night of the Iguana truly exceeds all expectations. It feels as if the audience is being transported to the grimy Mexican hotel and listening in on conversations between real people, rather than watching actors perform on a stage. Larry Shannon is caught in a struggle between what he deems the “realistic” and “fantastic” levels of life, but on the Hart House stage, it’s clear that the two can easily coexist.
Night of the Iguana runs at Hart House Theatre until March 10.