Spring Storm: Green Shoots Through a Frozen Crust

Local Arts Reviews

Spring Storm: Green Shoots Through a Frozen Crust

B. Iden Payne Theatre,

through November 28

Running Time: 2 hrs, 25 min

Heavenly weeps. Late in this early play by Tennessee Williams, the young heroine of that name collapses on the sofa in her family's well-appointed living room, her eyes spilling tears, her voice choking with sobs, her very being lost in the throes of heartbreak. The love of her life has left her, and she feels her life has ended. But sitting beside Heavenly is evidence that life has a way of going on: her aunt, Lila, who knows Heavenly's misery all too well, having suffered just such a loss herself two decades before. In this moment these two characters share in Williams' Spring Storm, we can sense the cycle of life. We know that we've been here before.

This drama, written by Williams when he was in his late 20s and still a half-dozen years away from his breakthrough success with The Glass Menagerie, will no doubt inspire in many viewers a sense of recognition, of having been here before. In part, this arises from the play's characters, many of whom bear a resemblance to the great playwright's greatest characters -- Maggie the Cat and Brick; Amanda, Laura, and Tom; Alma Winemiller. In the ardent and determined Heavenly; in Dick, her travel-hungry lover; in the tortured patrician Arthur, who pines for Heavenly; in the repressed librarian Hertha, who carries a torch for Arthur; in these and other figures are the powerful drives and tangled emotions that Williams eventually channeled into some of the American theatre's most memorable characters. One of Spring Storm's pleasures -- though perhaps a guilty one -- is identifying these ancestors of Williams' best-known figures as they parade through the riverside hamlet of Port Tyler, Mississippi.

But in the larger sense, the play's familiarity comes from its setting and the conflicts at its heart. This is an old, old story, one of youthful desires and rebellion, of unrequited passions, of class bias, of rifts, betrayals, and shattered hopes. The emotions roiling among Williams' four young protagonists have been the stuff of drama -- and life -- for ages. We know the sensual girl-woman embodied here in Heavenly, the restless wanderer embodied in Dick, the sensitive outcasts in Hertha and Arthur -- if not in our own experience, then from stories. Their struggles to find their place in the wide, wide world are the struggles of every generation, as certain as the seasons. Yes, we know this territory well.

Still, it's a landscape with enduring appeal. The struggles of the young, even when they are fraught with pain, draw us. The spirit and vigor with which they're fought are magnetic. They pulse with life at its purest and most vital.

This script brims with such youthful vitality. Williams packs it with eruptions of feeling: fiery torrents of ardor, floods of anguish, tempests of defiance. It's youth in all its headstrong certainty and overripe sense of consequence, with every word, every action, heavy with the fate of one's whole future, life and death. The result may be melodramatic, but it sets the stakes for the characters dramatically high and, coupled with Williams' energetic barrage of images and ideas, keeps Spring Storm as lively as a beehive.

Oh, the play also suffers from Williams' youth. Its small-town Southerners are sketched with a smug self-righteousness, making the adults little more than caricatures of class-conscious hypocrisy. And Williams hasn't yet the skill to shape the drama to a climax with the impact he seeks. Still, Spring Storm is more than a ham-handed drama from an eager and inexperienced writer. It boasts flashes of lyrical grace and true wisdom. These unexpected wonders -- in Dick's evocative description of a river in floodtime, in Hertha's cry of liberation on a high cliff and cry of desperation in a dark library, in Lila's sardonic yet serene commentaries -- are like green shoots bursting through the last frozen crust of winter.

To its credit, this Actors Repertory of Texas production gives the world premiere staging of Spring Storm the life it deserves. Director Michael Bloom keeps the show's energy high and the action spirited in a way that, while perhaps appearing broad and at times even overwrought to the modern viewer, feels true to the time and sensibility of the author. The four leads give full vent to their characters' intense yearnings and inner torments: Tertia Lynch fires the blood of Heavenly, so that she radiates a heat both carnal and defiant. Dan Snook grounds Dick in restiveness, so that he seems to be straining against invisible chains attached to Port Tyler. Jared Reed's tortured rich boy Arthur is a complicated mass of misery and longing in a crisp white tuxedo jacket; the clarity of his performance puts us right inside Arthur's shiny black shoes, so that we feel the weight of his station, his humiliation, his loneliness. Of the four leads, Dana Eskelson fields the greatest challenge in Hertha, as stereotypical a portrait of the small-town librarian as they come: plain of face, bespectacled, drably dressed, and a social pariah. But Eskelson transcends these limits by finding the joy in Hertha's soul and setting it free to wing its way about the stage; even in the character's most tragic moments, there is a feeling of flight in Eskelson's playing.

Throughout the cast, a lively spirit prevails. Barbara Sims projects a fluttery fierceness as Esmerelda, Heavenly's mother and the vigilant guardian of the Critichfield family bloodline; her fervent devotion to her Confederate forebears is simultaneously amusing and a tad scary. Countering her is Janelle Buchanan's sensible Lila, whose steady pace and droll observations add a dry zest to the proceedings. While they have less to work with in terms of dimension, the Austin actors who play assorted Port Tyler residents still manage to give these foolish Mississippians an appealing spark; they serve their snootiness with sly flourishes that tickle.

ART's wholehearted investment of energy in this young artist's effort serves the play well, even when it helps to expose the work's shortcomings. It gives us the full picture as envisioned by the writer -- broad brushstrokes, odd colors, and all. We can see Spring Storm as the fledgling work it is -- big, far-reaching, clumsy in places, but vivid and rich with promise.

At times, it seems almost as if ART's production is in sympathy with the work in this way. Like Williams at the time he penned the play, Artists Repertory is just getting on its feet. Although its first production is tight and professional in many respects, there are a few aspects of the show which seem ungainly or forced: a few Southern dialects that just drip honey; some repetitious blocking and stage placement that puts actors repeatedly on the same level; a couple of set pieces that look awkwardly executed. These missteps are unfortunate in such a highly anticipated debut, however, they are not the kind of imperfections that can -- or should -- obscure the beauty on the canvas, the colors, the animation. The life.

Heavenly weeps, and we know we've been here before. So it is with spring; a season that comes round and round and round, and each time we recognize having been there before. And yet we're able to take pleasure in spring, no matter how many turns of the calendar we've endured. We relish the warm breath of the sun on our faces, the buds on the plants, the fresh greenery, the cycle coming round again, the return, the renewal of life. And we can take a like pleasure in Spring Storm, where a young genius asserts himself with brashness, with potency, with life.

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exhibitionism, arts reviews, artists repertory of texas, spring storm, tennessee williams, michael bloom, tertia lynch, dan snook, dana eskelson, jared reed, barbara sims, janelle buchanan, state theater company, the good doctor, anton chekhov, neil simon, don toner, michael hankin, david stokey, dirk van allen

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