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Second St. Louis Tennessee Williams Festival


Remembering Tennessee


Various Grand Avenue Venues (May 3-7, 2017)

Reviewed by Joan Leyden

Through the heroic efforts of Carrie Houk, Executive Artistic Director, and with the support of many of the good citizens of our riverside city, several universities, multiple arts councils, The Opera Theatre, The Fox, and private businessmen, May 3 marked the opening of five days of celebrations honoring one of America’s greatest playwrights, Tennessee Williams.

It should be humbling for us to remember that Tennessee couldn’t wait to get out of here, and ironic to consider that perhaps his finest play, The Glass Menagerie, owed its inspiration and its setting to this writer’s formative years here. It is also instructive to recognize that all his works are characterized by compassion for the weak, the fragile, and generosity towards the outcast. The Festival shows sensitivity to these themes in its choosing as its title “The Magic of the Other.”

For their formal opener of the Festival on May 5th at the Fox Theater’s Curtain Call Lounge, what seemed like a hastily improvised sketch, Bertha in Paradise, featured the talented jazz singer, Anita Jackson, as a character resurrected from Williams’ play Hello from Bertha. Her tongue-in-cheek rendition of some bawdy songs was highly enjoyable, revealing great warmth and wit.

The previous night two of Tennessee’s plays opened, Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? at Stockton House, and Small Craft Warnings at the .ZACK (a barely adequate space on Locust near N. Leonard). Friday, May 5th an exhibit of Mr. Williams’ paintings opened at the St. Louis University Museum of Art, a collection of “deeply personal” and charming studies of friends and settings, rendered in delicate pastels. This exhibit, located a few steps west of Grand Avenue and Lindell, continues through July 23rd, and is well worth seeing.

On the same night, May 5th, “Deseo,” opened at the Marcelle, a Cuban company’s dramatic re-experiencing of A Streetcar Named Desire. The next day, Saturday featured a bus tour “retracing the roots of Tennessee’s early years in St. Louis”, and a reading (not a production as suggested in the Festival program) of Naming the Dog, a timely work touching on the unrest in Ferguson. Also on Saturday at the .ZACK, a dramatic performance (another reading?) was showcased, “St. Louis Stories”, unpublished short stories and narrative poems, set in the 1930’s, from a young Tennessee.

Other offerings included an outdoor showing at the Public Media Commons of the film, “Summer and Smoke” (inaudible sound, no chairs and a punishing wind); and a hauntingly touching exhibit of photographs at the .ZACK by a New Orleans artist, Ride Hamilton. May 8th audiences were treated to a dramatic reading entitled “ensembles 2.0” based on Francesca Williams’ collection of family letters, and featuring Geraldine Page’s daughter, Angelica Page, as “Edwina Williams”, Tennessee’s mother.

Closing night at the Curtain Call Lounge celebrated the playwright more directly with readings from some of his plays and other of his writings; a beautifully interpreted aria by Opera Theater’s Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek of Stella from the opera Streetcar; a charming duet by father, Lara Teeter, and his very young daughter, Elizabeth; and bringing the Festival to a soaring close, once more, another St. Louis treasure, the charming Anita Jackson, in her quietly passionate rendering of “Paradise.” As this evening attested, there is plenty of talent in St. Louis and the Festival was a welcome opportunity to experience it.

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