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Theatre review: Sidewalk Studio stirs up playwright's conflicted history

May 12, 2012|By Lynne Heffley
  • Actors Jack Heller, from left, Robert Standley and Tamara Braun run through a scene before performing "Tennessee in the Summer" at the Sidewalk Studio Theatre in Burbank.
Actors Jack Heller, from left, Robert Standley and Tamara… (Cheryl A. Guerrero/Staff…)

The summer heat permeates a New York hotel room, circa 1972. A slim and sexy blond, clad only in a lacy white slip, lifts a languid hand to fan herself as she needles and nags the room's other occupant: playwright Tennessee Williams.

In Joe Besecker's poignant and steamy drama, “Tennessee in Summer,” at the Sidewalk Studio Theatre in Burbank, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” answers the young woman's gibes in kind as he sits at his typewriter, struggling to finish a new play.

Crumpled pages littering the floor around his desk and the liquor and pills on a nearby cabinet attest to Williams' frustration and angst.

“The critics have already written your obituary,” the woman taunts him, aware that Williams is obsessed with thoughts that his success is behind him. The critics, he howls back, turned against him when he publicly acknowledged his homosexuality.

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After the woman goads the playwright into escalating bursts of rage, she seduces him away from his work with an anonymous male hustler whom she invites into the room. (This is an adults-only play, not only for its intense subject matter, but for some frank sexual grapplings and adult language.)

The action progresses in a series of non-linear time slips: The young, pre-college Williams is at home, telling his plans for the future to his beloved, damaged sister Rose (the inspiration for Laura in Williams' strongly autobiographical drama, “The Glass Menagerie”).

During a party in 1947, Williams meets Frank Merlo, who would become his companion for 14 years; snippets of the turbulent years of their relationship occur en route to Merlo's death from lung cancer.

Williams' puritanical mother Edwina, who calls her son's work “lunatic filth” and refuses to accept that she was the model for “The Glass Menagerie's” smothering Amanda, appears at age 90, suffering from paranoid dementia.

And over the course of the play, Williams' descent into a fog of pills and alcohol is painfully depicted, as is his hellish, involuntary commitment to a mental institution.

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