“Period of Adjustment” by Tennessee Williams, produced by SF Playhouse. Director: Bill English. Set: Nina Ball. Lighting: Michael Oesch. Sound: Cliff Caruthers. Costumes: Tatjana Genser. Properties/Dialect Coach: Lauren English.
George Haverstick: Patrick Alparone. Mrs. McGillicuddy: Jean Forsman. Mr. McGillicuddy: Joe Madero. Dorothea Bates: Maggie Mason. Ralph Bates: Johnny Moreno. Isabel Haverstick: MacKenzie Meehan.
Tennessee Williams best work is, of course, universally celebrated as among the greatest accomplishments of 20th century dramatic literature. Still, for a writer of such olympian reputation, he is often disrespected. In the publishers blurb for a recent collection of essays (“Tenn At One Hundred: The Reputation of Tennessee Williams”, edited by David Kaplan), an anonymous publicist notes that “at the time of his death in 1983, he was the most produced playwright in the country and one of the most ridiculed American writers.”
I am not one to ridicule any of Williams’ efforts, and am among those who admire the latter plays and find them as full of genius as the recognized masterpieces.
Which brings us to “Period of Adjustment”, Williams only comedy and rarely produced. Based on SF Playhouse’s current revival, this is a minor tragedy. The play is a delight.
Many of Williams’ characteristic themes are here—sexual frustration, gender ambivalence, mental illness, malevolent family manipulation—but presented with sly, offbeat exaggeration and an assurance that all will work out well in the end.
“Period of Adjustment” presents an encounter between two struggling couples. It is Christmas eve, and newlyweds George and Isabel pay a surprise visit to the home of George’s old army buddy, Ralph, with whom he served in the Korean war. George’s and Isabel’s marriage is off to a rocky start, as they take off on their honeymoon in a bargain-purchased Cadillac hearse and spend their wedding night at a cheap tourist motel where panicked George sleeps in an armchair. Ralph and his wife Dorothea aren’t much better off. Ralph has quit a job with his father-in-law, and Dorothea has walked out in anger with their three-year-old son. Ralph is trying to sell off all his furniture (on Christmas eve!) and take off on his own.
It hardly seems a setup for comedy, but as the situation develops the characters’ attempted solutions to their dilemmas veer towards the ridiculous, evoking empathetic laughter, as when Ralph, concerned that his three-year-old son plays with dolls, purchases a ridiculous number of stereotypical masculine toys such as cowboy costumes and rocket launchers. Or when he describes his struggles with his wife’s appearance, admitting that he was first attracted to her father’s money but had to get past her buck teeth.
The laughs are real. But present, also, are Williams’ typical poetic insights, lush language and potent metaphor as when we learn that the lovely home of Ralph and Dorothea is literally built on a cavern and is sinking bit by bit into the ground.
I was reminded of the film “The Freshman” in which Marlon Brando plays a caricature of his most famous performance as Don Corleone in “The Godfather”. In “The Freshman”, Brando slyly mocks his own greatest performance, looking and acting almost like Don Corleone, but just enough off the beat to create a wonderful comic effect.
In “Period of Adjustment”, Williams accomplished something similar. It is clearly Williams in theme and style, but oddly and delightfully offbeat.
All of this is well-managed by director Bill English in a classy, beautifully balanced production. Nina Ball’s set of a 50s suburban household is pitch perfect, as are Tatjana Genser’s costumes and Cliff Caruthers’ sound design.
The company works beautifully as an ensemble, finding all the laughs, yet never indulging in caricature.
There are many fine examples of Williams’ elegant imagery and language as when the young bride describes the unfortunate wedding night motel where, “the electric heat in the cabin lit up but gave off no heat.” Or when young war veteran George, suffering from panic attacks, wonders if he will “shake all my life like dice in a crap shooter’s fist.” Williams fans will not be disappointed.
As befits a comedy, all ends well with both couples headed for a happily-ever-after.
Admirers of Tennessee Williams work will be enchanted with this production. For further information, click here.
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