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'Desire' and the Modern Tennessee Williams

Six playwrights adapt Williams’ short stories into a wild array of performances at 59E59.

Photos by Carol Rosegg

When you go to see Tennessee Williams performed onstage, you don't typically expect to see an adaptation of non-theatrical texts. Williams' many short stories are less well known than his iconic plays, but that does not mean that they are any less fascinating or innovative. And now in The Acting Company's Desire, an evening of six short plays based on those stories and directed by Michael Wilson, even theater aficionados have something to learn.

Each piece has been adapted by a different playwright, some maintaining the characters and setting of the original story and some putting it in an entirely new context. The stories themselves range from texts originally published in 1939 all the way through 1980, allowing audiences to engage with the themes and motifs that inspired Williams across his career. With a beautiful, versatile wooden set evoking the classic and the contemporary all at once and an ensemble of just nine actors to play all the roles, Desire allows for a wide variation in the setting and tone of the pieces while still maintaining a unified aesthetic.

The first play, "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin" by Beth Henley, tells the story of an imaginative young piano ingenue, Roe (Juliet Brett), whose talent seems to vanish when she is paired with charming violinist Richard Miles (Brian Cross) for a duet for the recital. The stylized performance, often accompanied by beautiful works of classical music by Jono Mainelli, sometimes creates a beautiful surreal effect, but is other times odd and distracting, such as in Richard Miles' floating bicycle wheels. Narrated from the perspective of Roe's younger brother Tom (Mickey Theis), the play deals with the concerns of impending womanhood in a way that is particular to its era but also somehow timeless.

The second piece, "Tent Worms" by Elizabeth Egloff, is the one play that feels like it belongs in a different collection altogether, concerning the affairs of modern New Yorkers (Liv Rooth and Derek Smith) vacationing in Cape Cod rather than a romanticized American South. Both the source material of a later and more mature story by Williams and the new setting result in a sophisticated, contemporary piece about the fleeting inspiration and destructive obsessions of writers. Creative lighting and projection effects bring that destruction into a mode of magical realism, though the mysterious fireman appearing to put out the flames can lead to confusion amongst the audience.

John Guare's "You Lied to Me About Centralia," an adaptation of the Williams story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," is the least theatrical but most imaginative piece, telling the other side of The Glass Menagerie from the point of view of the Gentleman Caller and his fiancée. Consisting largely of one extended monologue each from Jim (Mickey Theis) and Betty (Megan Bartle), the play turns simple storytelling into a performance worthy of the stage.

Marcus Gardley's "Desire Quenched by Touch" is an adaptation of "Desire and the Black Masseur" and deals with the uncomfortable racial and sexial tensions simmering just below the surface of many of Tennessee Williams' works in a provocative but often humorous way. Detective Bacon (Derek Smith) brings charming, verbose African American masseur Fountaine Le Grand (Yaegel T. Welch) into the police station for questioning after his regular client Anthony Burns (John Skelley) goes missing. As Grand tells his story, however, the full implications of Burns' deviant sexuality begin to emerge, and the final scene of the piece quite possibly takes the entire effect too far.

Of all the pieces, David Grimm's "Oriflamme" feels the most like a traditional Tennessee Williams text, a relatable but ultimately predictable collision of naivety and jaded, romantic adventure in 1930s St. Louis. Anna (Liv Rooth) appears in a public park wearing an evening gown and starts speaking to herself, only to find herself utterly entranced by confident bootlegger Rodney (Derek Smith), and nothing good can come from the mix.

"The Field of Blue Children" by Rebecca Gilman is a postmodern deconstruction of the romance, poetry, storytelling and Southern identity of Tennessee Williams in the setting of a modern University of Alabama. Layley (Megan Bartle) is a typical sorority girl who decides to take a poetry class because she has ideas and stories that she feels unable to express. There she meets Dylan (John Skelley), and despite their respective significant others something ignites between the two of them that only poetry can explain, while Layley's immensely powerful memory monologues entrance Dylan and the audience alike.

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

One of the most astounding elements of Desire is the transformative power of the ensemble of just nine actors, together portraying a milieu of Williams characters that transcends the boundaries of each individual story. As the actors step up on stage for their curtain call, they quickly cycle through the casts of each of the plays, demonstrating the versatility of both the literary canon and the performers. Particularly impressive are the performances of Liv Rooth (a 1920s grandmother, modern Manhattanite, classic beauty and sorority girl), Derek Smith (tormented author, detective and mysterious gentleman) and John Skelley (disturbed gay man and poor college poet).

If there is one thing that is consistent across this series of short plays, it is the language, reveling in itself and prone to musical, expansive monologues that transport you to another world no matter the time or place. Under the expert guidance of these six playwrights, Tennessee Williams' prose "makes you remember things you didn't know you'd forgotten."

Desire plays at 59E59 though October 10.

This article was previously published on


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