Tennessee Williams gets lost in ‘The Night of the Iguana’
The Daily Beast
December 17, 2023
The power and poetry of Tennessee Williams’ words flicker into only occasional life in an unfocused new production of his 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.”
The Night of the Iguana is a Tennessee Williams play of disparate parts—long, baggy of speech, and only for the dedicated and patient. Brave is the director and cast approaching it, because the play is unfocused and woolly in construction; the battle for the actors (particularly those playing leads Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon and Hannah Jelkes) is to navigate a comprehensible way through its hard yards of text.
Only occasionally does a new production of the play at Signature (through Feb. 25, 2024) locate spark and focus, such as in the pointed confrontations between hotel owner Maxine Faulk (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Hannah (Jean Lichty). One fashion-based mystery is why Maxine seems to be dressed in relatively modern dress, while the others look to be in the garb of the era the play is set—a beach-adjacent hotel in 1940’s Mexico.
The recently widowed Maxine is the confrontational, sexually assertive owner of a ramshackle hotel, who has an unquenchable crush on Shannon (Tim Daly). Shannon knows this, and uses it as a lever of control; his interest lies with the hippyish-seeming Hannah, a painter who, despite her arty wispiness, is actually on the make herself—as Maxine tells her, she needs to be as she has a hotel bill for herself and her grandfather, Nonno (Austin Pendleton), to pay. Nonno is trying to compose his final poem.
Two Nazi tourists (Alena Acker and Michael Leigh Cook) are there taking in the sun, and celebrating the onward march of murderous fascism. Maxine’s cabana staff, Pedro (Bradley James Tejeda) and Pancho (Dan Teixeira), try and keep order under her tersely imparted orders—and are mostly silent and sidelined.
The triangle between the scandal-beset Shannon, Maxine, and Hannah is the dramatic heart of the play; Shannon, working for a small travel agency, has had to forsake his ministry—after a nervous breakdown—to work as a tour guide. He is a lost man of god, happier sinking into endless rum cocktails rather than preaching and pastoral care. It is a tough role to step up to, with the specter of Richard Burton in John Huston’s 1964 movie adaptation, which also starred Ava Gardner (as Maxine) and Deborah Kerr (as Hannah).
Shannon and Hannah have very long conversations about belief, purpose, and desire, while we are not sure how dangerous or inert a predator Shannon is, even as we briefly become acquainted with an alleged victim of a sexual assault by him, Charlotte (Carmen Berkeley), who is part of the tour group. Lea DeLaria plays Judith, Charlotte’s vocal teacher, described as “butch” in the argot of the play, and not conceived with any more depth than the stomping, implied-unstated-lesbian stereotype that descriptor suggests.
Tour group staffer Jake Latta (Keith Randolph Smith) makes a welcome appearance to challenge Shannon’s indolence late in the play to break up all the seething and philosophizing—a welcome jolt of reality, just as Maxine is in her most vinegary moments. When she uses a drinks trolley as a weapon, and the stage briefly devolves into chaos, it makes for a lovely moment of uproar.
The staging of the play accentuates the sense of a group of characters marooned both physically and psychologically. Maxine’s hotel is imagined as a land-made shipwreck wrenched to a tellingly unstable-looking axis. Unseen groups of characters offstage (like the group of tourists Shannon is shepherded) are waved at and called to stiltedly throughout the show. The confined and tethered iguana of the title is hidden underneath the hotel, and comes from The Land of Obvious Metaphor.
Shannon is the creature’s human echo—he too is tied up to a hammock to prevent himself from committing suicide by jumping into the sea, is trapped, and furious at his circumstances, battling demons on all fronts. Maxine is horny, angry, and assertive—but is she his liberator, comforter, or gaoler (or all the above); Hannah is questing and ethereal, and hopes to minister to Shannon—perhaps with a view to freeing them both, perhaps for her own ends—with the help of poppy-seed tea. As if itself oddly hopped-up, the play goes around and around in musing, debate-heavy circles, even as storms and gorgeous sunsets act as a visually beautiful clock to all the talking.
The piercing poetry of Williams’ words flickers into life many times, but also feel missed and blurred. Nonno’s poem, as it is finally delivered—about an olive branch observing the sky—feels underwhelming, rather than a profound underline. Williams may have known or imagined a way to crystallize The Night of the Iguana into knowability—but this almost 3-hour production feels lost, even as its actors valiantly attempt to do the same.