St. Louis' First Tennessee Williams Festival Features Actress Olympia Dukakis and More

By Richard Green
In Culture

An army of entertainers is gearing up to honor one of St. Louis’ most celebrated authors. Tennessee Williams—first rebelling against puritanical surroundings, and later against inner demons—immortalized Depression-era St. Louis in “The Glass Menagerie.”

He even touched on the (then) far-flung suburb of Creve Couer, in one of his many plays and poems. The Williams Festival’s performances and presentations will take place in the Central West End and Grand Center May 11-13.

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Photo courtesy of TWFSTL

Update: As of Monday, May 9 Olympia Dukakis will not be appearing at the festival due to illness.

The festival also boasts insightful Williams doppelgänger Jeremy Lawrence as the legendary writer himself, and the esteemed Upstream Theatre recreates “Menagerie” with a mostly black cast.

Williams’ bright gifts and dark life immortalized him: a great lyrical outsider, removed as a child from rural Mississippi, to reach manhood in a troubled apartment at 6554 Enright Ave.

But a haunting familiarity with madness brought his characters to life. According to Professor Henry Schvey of Washington University:  “(Williams’) characters literally ache with what it means to be different.”

Frequent onstage re-creator Lawrence has researched his subject thoroughly, and says the playwright even foresaw the “deeply imbedded battle in this country between the religious right, and the right to be different,” long before the culture wars of the 1980s.

His most-remembered characters may all be “in transit,” or defying entrapment.  Professor Schvey says, “In some ways his best creations are all ‘lost’—people who have lost their way.”

Nevertheless, event organizer Carrie Houk finds kinship with the author of “Menagerie’s” own desire to lose himself, traveling much further than the moon.

She explains, “I think at that time, if you had a desire to leave (St. Louis), you were considered a bit odd. For those of us who are most happy with a plane ticket in our pocket, (his plays were) a different environment to be understood in.”

Olympia Dukakis’s stage credits include “Night Of The Iguana,” which actor Lawrence remembers as a shift in the author’s focus, toward men’s inner demons in “dragon country,” as one character says, where people are “going a bit mad.”

Houk calls “Iguana” a “lovely assortment of humans, all at the ends of their tethers.”

Through it all, Tennessee reveals madness through a poet’s eyes. Professor Schvey says, “Williams first brought poetic language to the American stage.”

But it came at a cost.

“I don’t think he ever felt really comfortable with another human being.”  But he adds the possible exception of Williams’ sister, the mentally delicate Rose Williams.

It’s ironic then, that so many people from around the world still rush to join him.

For access to a majority of events, the festival is offering a festival pass, which includes tickets to the Hirschfeld exhibition unveiling; performances of “The Two Character Play;””A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot;” “What’s Next on the Agenda, Mr. Williams?”, except on May 11; “The St. Louis Rooming House Plays;” Ensemble: Williams Family Letters; Tennessee Jam; Tennessee Williams panel events; Tennessee Williams Tribute Reading: “I Didn’t Go to the Moon, I Went Much Further;” the Stella Shouting contest and the closing party.

Several performances are repeated each night, giving the audience the opportunity to see as many performances as possible. 

For tickets and information on the festival’s schedule, visit twstl.org

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