The works of Tennessee Williams can be sorted into three distinct categories: A) The great plays, B) the awful plays, and C) the obscure plays, several of which were merely fragmented interludes that would later be transformed into his great or awful plays. As an obvious precursor to A Streetcar Named Desire, the 1946 one-act, Interior:Panic, presented by the Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre at FringeNYC, clearly falls into this last category.
For those who know nothing of Streetcar beyond Marlon Brando’s moody ballyhooing of “Hey Stella!,” there may not be enough meat on the bones of this half-hour psychodrama to appreciate it as anything other than an odd character study from the mid-1940s involving a sex-crazed lunatic. But for Williams devotees, it is an intriguing early draft of a masterpiece, fascinating both for what would carry over to the final work, and what would be left behind.
At the center of the play is Blanche Shannon (Gwendolyn Kelso), the melancholy surname DuBois not yet in place. Having lost her family home, Belle Reve, she has also lost her mind and lost her virginity (by a longshot), but has managed to find her way to the small Southern apartment of her sister Grace (Mary Candler) and Grace’s mostly absent husband, Jack (Ed Hoopman). As the title of the play suggests, much of the action transpires in Blanche’s panicked and paranoid brainpan. The sweet crabapple jelly that Grace has cooked up is, to Blanche, “blood red goo” with the smell of death. And when a bill collector (Andrew Hutcheson) drops by, his banal conversation with Grace is perceived by Blanche to be a damning list of her sins and lusts. With the show’s live violin incidental music suddenly turning into evil screeching, it is a powerful scene which peaks at a complex moment – Blanche imagining that Grace is jealous of her salacious intentions toward her husband – and it is made even more powerful by a devastatingly simple piece of dialogue when Blanche believes that Grace has sneered, “I see how she looks at him.” It’s classic Williams.
Rather than the physically frailty that often accompanies a Blanche DuBois characterization, Kelso’s crazy lady is strong, seemingly fierce, and on something like a caffeine high. It’s a role that, in the wrong hands, could be yet another laughably bad Fringe Festival nightmare. Instead, Kelso finds the right amount of restraint to keep from going off the rails, and displays a fine sense of timing in her delivery. And if playing crazy is difficult, playing straight can sometimes be twice as hard. So, it is actually Candler who has the more challenging role, at turns being Blanche’s real-world sounding board, and then transforming into her imagined accuser, all the while playing traffic cop on stage for the exits and entrances of the men in their lives. Oh, and she’s also quite pregnant. Candler is workmanlike, but the script is too spare to reveal her true heart. Does the one cold peck on the cheek with her husband suggest her disinterest? Jack brings her home a slab of meat from the butcher (a detail that was kept when Jack grew up to become Stanley Kowalski), and Hoopman does well in his split attention between wife and sister-in-law, but his character is gone in a flash, leaving us to wonder if his feelings for Blanche are all in her mind, or if she was being led on. Then a doorbell rings, a gentleman caller arrives with roses, and the play suddenly ends, with Blanche not depending on the kindness of strangers, but acting more like The Glass Menagerie’s Laura, clinging to the fragility of hope.
Interior: Panic – by Tennessee Williams; Directed by Emily Lyon
WITH: Michael Amendola (George), Mary Candler (Grace), Andrew Hutcheson (Bill Collector), Ed Hoopman (Jack) and Gwendolyn Kelso (Blanche), Audrey Hayes (Violinist).
Costumes by Morgan Lawrence; Lighting by Jess Black; stage manager, Nissy Aya; At the Teatro LATEA, 107 Suffolk Street, 212-529-1948, Remaining Performances – Friday, August 15 at 7:00 PM, Sunday, August 24 at 5:00 PM,http://www.fringenyc.org, Running Time: 30 minutes