To see Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis? is to experience a play as beautiful as it is bizarre, as touching as it is absurd, as entertaining as it is awkward. A two-hour medley of twelve scenes, Merriwether was produced only once during Tennessee Williams's lifetime and manifests the best and worst of his writing: wonderfully lyrical language followed by confused streams of consciousness, heartbreaking drama preceded by nonsensical comedy. Indeed, this is a play without boundaries; genius and foolishness sit side-by-side. Sometimes even in each other's lap.
More a sketchbook of scenes than a narrative, Merriwether opens with Louise McBride pining for the return of her long-gone lover. Steeped in melancholy, she also takes time to implore her teenage daughter Gloria to resist the advances of the boys who pursue her. "Watch out for early fire!" she pleads to the brazenly flirtatious girl. The two never again share the stage, but each is revisited in following scenes: Louise as she wanders about her house and receives apparitions of the dead she and her neighbor summon, Gloria as she goes through school, radiating a steamy, teasing sexuality.
With no published script of this obscure work, director Dan Isaac had free rein to shape the play. He favored a spare design, opting for a set with few props and giving his actors plenty of time to chew the words rather than the scenery. As Louise McBride, Marcia Haufrecht was exquisite: a frail woman struggling to appear strong, an aging southern belle masking loneliness behind false laughter. "Even in a dream one can suffer," Louise claims. Haufrecht embodied the premise, projecting a drowsy, fatigued lonesomeness with each action and word. As Gloria, Miranda Black was gifted with the play's best lines, and she handled them as if they were juicy, forbidden fruit. To watch her trace the ground with a bare toe as she flirted with a young man, or to listen to her humid drawl as she dropped her eyes, was to see a gifted actress delighting in scandalous behavior.
As is always the case in Williams, lighting played as crucial a role as any actor. Megan Smith, working with the limited lighting resources at the Common Basis Theatre, did an admirable job creating a shadowy, illusory atmosphere. Josh Bloomgarden, sitting to the side of the stage and playing banjo, also helped create a mood of the American South, as did Michael Massey's genteel costumes.
Imagine some prankster ripping a few pages from each of Williams's plays then combining them into a single script, and there you have the text of Merriwether. With the symbolism of Summer and Smoke and A Streetcar Named Desire, the dreaminess of The Glass Menagerie, the repressed sexuality of Orpheus Descending, and the incoherence of Camino Real, Merriwether is frequently nothing more than a mishmash of plays and references -- a scorecard is needed to count the themes it considers then rejects. Like the apparitions Louise McBride speaks to, Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? is itself a bit unreal, and at times as substantial as a wisp of smoke. Yet like a ghost, it is also a beguiling thing to watch, and often impossible to look away from.
(Also featuring Janet Ward, Lyle Zimskind, Linda
Creamer, Nicholas Joy, Janet Girardeau, Marie
Vassallo, Keno Rider, Charles Kelley, Erma
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Copyright 2001 Ken Jaworowski