The career of Tennessee Williams is mostly remembered for a handful of plays written within his first decade of fame, but his career spanned nearly 40 years, from his breakthrough in the early 1940s until his death in 1982. EgoPo Classic Theater has regularly dipped into the Southern master’s back catalog, presenting obscure titles like Vieux Carré and Something Cloudy, Something Clear. This Fringe, they offer a rare staging of his 45-minute melodrama And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, a production that will travel to the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival later in the month.
Williams’s better-known works, brilliant and enduring though they may be, don’t tell his entire story. His alternate canon—often messier and more experimental, and unabashedly queer—deserves a place in the construction of his legacy as much as A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Fortunately, many companies have woken up to this reality in recent years.
And Tell Sad Stories exists somewhere between camp and sincerity. For a work written in 1957 and revised in 1962, it addresses queerness and blurry gender lines with remarkable frankness; it’s little wonder that Williams’s representatives encouraged him to suppress its publication in his lifetime. (The official premiere did not occur until 2004, with publication coming a year later.)
The central figure, Candy Delaney (Rob Tucker), appears first in effete male garb before manifesting her true self in a silken caftan and blond wig. Williams never resorts to sensationalism in exploring Candy’s transvestism—obscuring the boundaries between male and female is as essential to her self-actualization as breathing. (I use she/her pronouns to refer to Candy in this review, in keeping with the script.) In a similar vein, the playwright shies away from cheap thrills when documenting Candy’s charged encounter with Karl (a mischievous Nick Ware), the hard-drinking trick she takes home to her French Quarter apartment, perceived as her final chance at real, all-encompassing love.
The audience can see a plain disparity in the situation—Candy views Karl through rose-colored glasses, while he reads her as a contemptible meal ticket—but even as the rendezvous hits predictable and disturbing marks, Williams avoids cliché and refuses to wallow in the homophobic tropes of a queer, gender-nonconforming person “preying” on a straight man. In fact, the scenes between Candy and Karl contain the same pulse of quiet desperation that characterize the tragically hopeless flirtation between Blanche Dubois and the Young Collector in Streetcar—a final shot at fulfilling a long-delayed desire.
Director Lane Savadove infuses the rising tension with a surprising amount of humor, which reflects the caustic and catty voice Williams writes into his script. There is plenty of “bitch talk,” to use the term Candy derisively applies to drag-queen parlance, and bon mots to rival any of his sharpest dialogue. But more arrestingly, it remains strikingly unclear how much danger Karl holds for Candy, right up until the final moments. Is he really an agent of chaos, or will Candy’s intuition about his character become more than wishful thinking? The purposeful lack of clarity creates a stunning, shattering final image.
Revelations and wounds
Tucker, a performer known to Philly audiences mostly through musical theater, turns in a revelatory performance, full of vulnerability, tenderness, and an undercurrent of steel. To live somewhat openly as a transvestite (Candy’s word) in the 1950s meant to open oneself up to loneliness and violence—a fact Tucker treats with forthright resignation.
His Candy is a woman in control of her image: the man she presents to the world and the woman she can inhabit behind closed doors. Tucker makes the viewer believe that Candy sees Karl as her knight in shining armor, even while he suggests the truth lurking beneath the fantasy. Throughout the performance, he subtly shifts his vocal dynamics and physical carriage to suggest the liminality of Candy’s gender performance, without resorting to a mockery of masculinity or femininity.
In fact, three of the four characters in the play are transvestites; Kerry Jules and Charlie Barney play the others with a similarly refreshing honesty. In the world Williams creates, gender creativity is a fact of life—a feeling that aligns with his more outwardly mainstream dramas, in which nearly every character juggles a public face with private anguish. Even Karl, whom Ware imbues with unending menace, is not entirely as he seems at first glance. There is a typical Williams woundedness to be found there, too.
More Southern drama?
Production designer Dane Eissler creates a scenic world awash in Chinese lanterns and cherry blossoms, an ideal atmosphere for this sonata of a play. To watch EgoPo tackle Williams is to encounter a company in complete control of its subject, and although its main stage season will focus on the works of Sam Shepard, this production left me hungry for more sultry Southern drama. Is it too much to hope that, after a Provincetown sojourn, Candy Delaney and her ilk might bring a taste of New Orleans back to Philadelphia?
What, When, Where
And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens. By Tennessee Williams, directed by Lane Savadove. EgoPo Classic Theater. Through September 8, 2019, at Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine Street, Philadelphia. (267) 273-1414 or egopo.org.
Asian Arts Initiative is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with private and gender-neutral restrooms.