… as good as it gets …

Pook’s Hill, a new theatre group, is presenting three one-act plays by Tennessee Williams — 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton, Hello From Bertha, and This Property Is Condemned.  It’s hard to imagine a better evening of theater — and you know it from the moment 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton begins …

We’re in Mississippi cotton-growing country with two business rivals and a beautiful, big but somewhat childish woman, Flora, one of Williams great characters.  Jake, Flora’s husband — coarse, fat, and pretty brutal — burns down the cotton gin of rival gin owner Silva Vicarro so as to get to gin a profitable 27 wagons full of cotton.  While Jake’s off ginning, Vicarro –sleek, smart — comes by to even the score by seducing Flora.  Unlike crude Jake, Vicarro knows the woman needs “understanding”, and sets to winding in Flora in a seduction every bit as subtle, brilliant and erotically drawn out as that in The Glass Menagerie.

Samantha Steinmetz turns in a masterful performance as Flora, aware of what men are “after,” vulnerable, resisting, falling back on wily but transparent flirtation smiles and evasions, remembering what she ought to be doing, worrying that she isn’t doing it: the world of her character is fully expressed in the expressions that cross her face, the modulations of her high strung, nervous voice, the shifts in her body.

Flora is at the play’s heart but Brian Gianci as the canny and opportunistic Vicarro and Jack Haley as tough, obtuse Jake are equally just plain perfect in the roles.  And is Vicarro really any less a brute than Jake — or any of the other men Flora’s encountered?

Hello from Bertha is shorter, more of a sketch than a full play than 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton, but very moving.  Set in a brothel, it focuses on a prostitute, Bertha, not glamorous and “done up” but exhausted and crazed, heartsick over a man she believed in back when they had “good times.” Goldie, the Madam, is ready to throw the now useless girl out which, for Bertha, means a charity ward — the end of the line.  Desperate on all counts, Bertha imagines and re-imagines the letter she’ll write to the man in futile hope — he’s married now — that he’ll rescue her.   Her hope, fueled by memories and desire, wrestles mightily with despair in her grief stricken soul.

Andrus Nichols’ passionate performance as Bertha is so unrestrained it’s almost a surprise at the curtain call to see her as a calm, accomplished actress.  Vivienne Leheny’s effective performance emphasizes the tough, business sense of the madam who needs to get the sick girl out of the room but but still conveys a spark of human kindness, a humane reluctance that is, however, to no practical effect.  Imani Jade Powers is gentle as the young prostitute, Lena, to whom Bertha dictates her letter.  Does Lena recognize her own older, tragic self in Bertha?  Williams’ tenderness toward his characters bathes these marvelous plays in a breathtaking humanity.

This Property is Condemned is a play of two children — twelve or thirteen — set near the railroad tracks, each missing school for a different reason. Tom thought the day would be windy and good for flying the kite he’s fiddling with.  The young girl, Willie, though, doesn’t go to school anymore, but is living on the margins, alone in a house that’s been condemned.  Her family’s long gone, her sister — and for Willie a glamorous memory — was a prostitute.  Willie’s getting by — sporadically — the same way.  Both Tom and Willie have dreams.  It doesn’t look like Willie’s will come true.   But — Williams doesn’t leave anyone out — is Tom really on the safe track as he first appears in contrast to Willie?  After all, he’s misgauged the weather, playing hookie for nothing on a day with no wind, his kite grounded.

Tess Frazer is superb as Willie in her frayed, pretty blue tattered finery and skinny bare feet, poignantly still trying hard, testing herself by walking the rails.  David Armanino gives a strong portrait of a young but already opportunistic young man.  This Property Is Condemned was made into a movie in 1966 with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford.  It’s such a good play it whets the appetite to see the movie.

But most of all I’m looking forward to Pook’s Hill’s next production — in fact it’s hard to wait!

Something Wild plays at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, on the West Side of Manhattan through October 6th.