Fear and Loathing in Tennessee Williams

Robin Jones and Sam Read in 'The Two-Character Play,' photo by Mike Hipple


Plays demand to be seen. The Two-Character Play, a dialogue-rich self-examination penned by Tennessee Williams over the course of a decade and released near the end of his life, demands to be read. The acting is secondary to the meta-structure, contained in words that twist through William’s psyche.

Watching Civic Rep’s production, running at New City Theater through Aug. 1, is an excellent substitute for spending years studying this work. Under the direction of L. Zane Jones, The Two-Character Play rises up from the dust of obscurity and drags the audience downwards through Williams’ characteristic Southern madness. It’s a challenging work, for the company and for the audience, but one well worth exploring.

Siblings Clare and Felice, a slightly unhinged actress and overly depressive playwright, are stuck on a never-ending tour. One night they find themselves abandoned by their troupe, left to their own devices to perform the wildly experimental Two-Character Play, a work so odd that it requires an alluded-to audience interpreter and explanation from the actors as they perform. This play features a brother and sister who cloister themselves within their dilapidated family home in the wake of their parent’s grisly deaths. Paralyzed by fear, the siblings constantly nag at each other as they move forward with life. Their play jostles along, accompanied by forced cuts and improvisations as the two actors build a fictional world informed by the real trauma they experience around them.

The play-within-a-play asks the audience to wholly trust the actors. As Clare, Robin Jones went from caustic diva to quivering madwoman with a slump of her shoulders as the lighting changed. The roles began to expertly bleed into each other, particularly in the second half when play and reality more overtly mesh. There is a difference, not just in accent (a Southern drawl adopted for the acted play) but in carriage. It’s a bit trickier for Sam Read’s Felice, a simmering Williams surrogate. His dual roles don’t require as much physical change, and yet the slight differences between the playwright brother and the brother locked up in a house with madness are manifested through rising levels of hopelessness that Read adroitly handles.

Everything services the dialogue, juicy Williams words that beg the listener to, like Felice, get “lost in the play.” Two-Character asks a lot of the observer. It still contains the imagery of Williams’ well-known plays, where characters paint shattering pictures in the air through monologue. But, particularly with the dual storylines, things get weird. In exploring the realities of mental illness and the gradual slip away from self-identity, Williams packs the script full of very real and very rich metaphors for what it’s like to live trapped within extreme psychosis. The mansion becomes the physical prison of the mind. The theatre extends some freedoms to the characters, only to snatch it away that peace through space restrictions and increasing isolation. Either way these characters go, the Clare and Felice of the theatre or the Clare and Felice of the South, they are trapped by their demons and caught with no chance of escape. It’s bad enough individually, but in each case they are further hobbled by one another.

Jones’s direction heightens the claustrophobic tension, mirroring the sibling’s insanity through expert blocking within a tricky space. New City Theater is a long, narrow rectangle whose brick walls, laden with ladders, ropes and bric-a-brac, perfectly lends itself to the backstage feel. The audience, fringing what would be the wings of the stage, feel like intrusive spectators feeding off tension as the play barrels on disastrously. The lighting, designed by Thorn Michaels, masterfully enhances the disquieting feel of the theatre. From the blinding stage lights during showtime, to the yellow-tinged glow of a bare bulb when the actors are left to themselves, each lighting cue serves as a jarring reminder that these people don’t fully control their lives.

The Two-Character Play might not be as immediately accessible as early Williams, and it might not be the type of play that can ever be fully explored, or even understood. It is a work that will leave a lasting impression. Civic Rep’s production promises to haunt your summer, filling the days following with a sense of delicious unease.