Theater review: UAA's 'Iguana' makes case for Williams masterpiece

Posted by MIKE DUNHAM on February 16, 2014 

Alex Albrecht and Gloria King in the lead roles of what may be Tennessee Williams' best play.

PHILIP HALL — courtesy University of Alaska

Regular theater-goers sit through bad plays, good plays, great plays... and Tennessee Williams. The University of Alaska Anchorage Department of Theatre and Dance is currently presenting "The Night of the Iguana," which some argue is his single best work. 

While admittedly a college show, the UAA production, directed by Steven Hunt, nonetheless makes a good case for that argument. The success of any staging of "Iguana" depends on the main protagonist, Larry Shannon, a fallen Episcopal preacher escorting tour groups in Mexico and, invariably, having an affair with the youngest woman on the bus. He's on stage virtually the whole time and has to go through internal tumult as chaotic as Hieronymous Bosch's vision of Hell.

Alex Albrecht turns in a good performance in the complex and trying role, falling apart and rebuilding and refracturing en route to what is, in Williamsonian terms, a sense of redemption.

Larry's unlikely salvation, though a salvation without happiness, is triggered by the arrival at a west coast hotel of Hannah, played by Gloria King, a down-on-her-luck New England spinster artist who harbors the instincts of a hustler and who cannot, or at least hasn't, experienced real love. But, Williams seems to say, who can? Who does?

For much of the play, King brought too much reserve to the part. But in the last half of the last act, her biggest scenes, began to add layers of animation that helped propel the piece to a conclusion that, as the playwright intended, had me ready to cry for several reasons.

The rest of the big cast with real roles (there are a pair of loin clad and mostly silent bellhops and a noisy quartet of German tourists who chatter mainly in Deutsche, all of whom figure in the play, but not in the plot) were in the novice category, competent but not quite smooth enough to sell on their characters. They included the hotel owner (Rebeccca Gilman) and a bossy tourist (Grace Hawkins). The best performances in this group were from Adi Davis, as Larry's latest fling, and Jake Beauvais, Hannah's poet grandfather. In the first act Beauvais had perhaps the worst makeup I've seen in any play ever, but it seemed to be improved after intermission. 

In fact, though the first act was generally satisfactory, things improved all around in the second. I suspect it took that long for most of the actors, faced with a small crowd at a Sunday matinee, to warm up and start hitting their marks. The rowdier scenes were well-timed, several people shouting at once in a way that we could hear them all separately. And the monologues were nicely honed and on target. Expository dialogue, however, would benefit from slowing down. Rapid pacing is good in comedy, but here there were times that some space would have helped the drama.

Daniel Glen Carlgren's set, constructed by carpentry students in four different classes according to the playbill, is stunning. The Mainstage floor has been raised to the level of the bottom seats, the better to reflect the hilltop locale. Jungle, ocean and other noises create a continuous soundtrack of sorts. The rainstorm in the first act is convincingly created with the strategic use of sprinklers. 

It may not be the best production ever of this play, but what a play. Like a magician of emotion, the playwright draws one brilliant card after another for two solid hours. Each character is sharp and alive from their first words. Each twist is both logical and unexpected and the natural poetry of the language is as graceful as a figure skater.

"Iguana," Williams' last hit play, is generally mentioned in the same company with "Glass Menagerie," "Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." It is the least performed of the four yet, as noted above, many connoisseurs consider it his most perfect and moving work. In the past year, I've sat through bad plays, good plays and great plays. "Iguana" is the play I think I could to see every night of the run and get the same sense of astonishment each time.

It will run through March 2. Tickets are available at uaatix.com.

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