Theatre Downtown has cast an impressive lineup of some of its regular thespians for an evening of one-acters by Tennessee Williams: The Long Goodbye, The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, The Last of My Solid Gold Watches and 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Although it's generally well acted, the major problem with the evening's collection is that none of these shorter works are particularly good plays. They certainly can't compare with any of Williams' masterworks; more often than not, they merely serve as pencil sketches for some of the recurring themes and idiosyncratic characters that tend to reappear throughout the playwright's oeuvre.

Take the first offering, for instance. The Long Goodbye (directed by Fran Hilgenberg) features Joe, a young, self-doubting writer from St. Louis, played by Daniel Cooksley. The plot concerns his struggle to break with his past and deal with his own overprotective nature toward his younger sister, Myra. The story, though, is fragmented and unfocused. We never quite learn why Joe feels the way he does about his life, nor how the relationships with his family members have developed. Williams was much more successful in shaping the character of Tom – another young, self-doubting writer from St. Louis, who also had a younger sister who needed protection – in The Glass Menagerie.

The evening's second one-act, The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, again lays out themes and characters that Williams pursued and later perfected – this time in A Streetcar Named Desire. Sarah Benz-Phillips plays Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore, a faded Southern belle whose high-strung personality and inability to accept the seedy nature of her life force her into a world of fantasy. It's hardly a play at all; more like one overly long scene. And whether by director Fran Hilgenberg's design, or because the opening-night audience of friends and relatives misunderstood the work's premise (providing unbridled and raucous laughter throughout), the performance I saw came off as more of a Carol Burnett spoof of Blanche DuBois than an honest exploration of the character's eccentricities. I'm fairly certain that satire was not Williams' intent here, although those around me seemed to think so.

Frank Hilgenberg has better luck directing the magnificent Jim Cassidy (who starred as Big Daddy in Theatre Downtown's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) in The Last of My Solid Gold Watches, an elongated monologue by one Mr. Charlie Colton, a traveling salesman who has lived too long and seen too many changes in the creeds and customs of the old South.

The evening's final work, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, also directed by Frank Hilgenberg, comes a little closer to being an actual play, although the plotline is tedious and unsurprising. It is saved mostly by the fine acting of Leesa Halstead, who portrays Flora Meighan, the dim-witted woman-child who is forced into adultery over a squabble between her husband, Jake (Randy Molnar), and neighbor Silva Vacarro (Jim Pacitti).

Although Theatre Downtown should be applauded for tackling some of the lesser works of one of America's pre-eminent playwrights, this is not Tennessee Williams at his best. And as appreciative as I am for the attempt, it's not the real thing by a Delta mile.


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