By Sarah Downs
TENNESSEE RISING: THE DAWN OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, a solo play written and performed by Jacob Storms, is a surprising take on the life of the brilliant and complex man whose plays defined a generation. Tennessee Rising focuses on the six-year period from 1939-1945, during which time Williams’ creative powers grew exponentially, as he transformed from hopeful young man to confident author well on his way to becoming one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.
In 1939 he is Tom, an ambitious young writer with an old soul, trapped in a miserable home in St. Louis, and by 1945 he is Tennessee, the toast of New York, with his first Broadway hit, The Glass Menagerie. It feels as if Williams lives at least three lifetimes in these 6 short years. He escapes St. Louis and becomes a happy wanderer, an apprentice to his own genius. New Orleans, Hollywood, Key West, New York, Provincetown – Each new town is his favorite. Each new town is his oyster. Each new town wears out its welcome, and he is off on his next adventure. Hope and ambition propel him forward. Wherever he goes, there he is.
Jacob Storms has immersed himself in the life of this extraordinary man. Storms moves comfortably through the spectrum from sparkling highs to heartfelt lows with wit and charm. The character is not so much a cloak he wears as something that comes from within. As Williams regales us with anecdotes, personal stories of loss and clever asides, Storms neither rushes nor belabors, confidently avoiding the trap of overselling his character.
In highlighting the early days of Williams’ career, Storms does the playwright and his audience a great service, introducing us to a Tennessee we rarely see. He is optimistic and vulnerable, a work in progress. In a refreshing change of pace, the curation of material focuses us on Williams as a whole person, not a vessel for predictable tropes of gay man in an intolerant world, intense playwright and cynical, troubled alcoholic. It is such a relief not to have these characteristics overshadow the human at the center. Yes, these disparate elements were part of Williams but neither defined him as a person, nor dominate Storms’ characterization.
Director Alan Cumming keeps the energy flowing. His hands firmly on the reins, he directs with restraint, finding the balance between a light touch and the natural drama of a man with an interesting life. The result is a portrayal that is colorful without being performative or precious. In the challenging environment of a small outdoor space, the audience a mere few feet away and in the light, Storms has to navigate the fourth wall with skill. He alternately reaches out to the audience directly and retreats to the stage ‘world’ of Tennessee Williams in his comfortable flat, aperitif in hand. When Storm engages us individually it is as if you are looking straight into the eyes of the playwright himself. The ‘blue devils’ of self-doubt that plagued Tennessee Williams may have made him feel invisible, but we see him clearly. We meet as strangers and depart as friends.
TENNESSEE RISING: THE DAWN OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, written and performed by Jacob Storms. Directed by Alan Cumming. Performances run SUNDAYS at 7PM through June 27 at the cell theatre (338 West 23rd Street). Performances will be presented open air for a strictly limited audience of 18 with masks and social distancing required. Running time is 75 minutes. For tickets go to OvationTix.com.