Though itís always listed among Tennessee Williamsís major works, his 1961 The Night of the Iguana has rarely been accorded the reverence reserved for more frequently revived ó and far less remarkable ó plays like The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. That may be a consequence of the misbegotten John Huston movie version from 1964, which unwisely updated the 1940 setting and miscast Richard Burton as the once-reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, now a tour guide about to be fired for sleeping with a teenage girl on a trip through Mexico. The specters of both Burton ó a far too charismatic presence to fill the role of the handsome, feverish weakling Shannon ó and the glamorous clunker of a film in which he starred seem finally to have faded, though, and The Night of the Iguana, which may be Williamsís last masterpiece, now occasionally shows up in regional theaters like Hartford Stage, where Michael Wilsonís intelligently conceived and visually exquisite production is rounding up the season.
Scenic designer Jeff Cowie has transformed the ample space at Hartford Stage into an image, pitched on the border between realism and magic realism, of a magnificently dilapidated hotel on the edge of a Mexican rain forest. At its most bizarre and enchanted, this is the Mexico of Frida Kahloís canvases. Costa Verde (as the establishment is called), managed by recently widowed transplanted Texan Maxine Faulk (Alyssa Bresnahan), stretches back in a stylized perspective that Wilson uses for some striking painterly effects as foreshortened actors appear like ghosts in the distance. (Howell Binkleyís lighting sculpts the faces of the performers in the tropical mist.) Wilsonís direction of the current Broadway romance Enchanted April displays a strong and unconventional eye, but he didnít get all his visual ideas to work. At Hartford Stage, where heís artistic director, he does.
Williamsís play brings the lives of four travelers to a crossroads at the Costa Verde. The characters include Maxine, in dire financial and emotional straits since the death of her husband, Fred; Fredís old friend Shannon (James Colby), who is on the edge of what one of the other characters refers to as a rather voluptuous nervous breakdown, self-dramatized yet genuine; Hannah Jelkes (Annalee Jefferies), a Nantucket spinster of indeterminate age; and her nearly centenarian grandfather, Nonno (James Pritchett). She paints and sketches; he is a poet, long past his productive years, who is struggling against his failing memory to bring forth one final poem before he dies.
In the course of a day and a night, while all four come to terms with the physical, emotional, and spiritual state of their lives, Hannah and Shannon form the fleeting but potent bond of strangers who recognize and respect each otherís efforts to keep their demons (Shannonís " spook, " Hannahís " blue devil " ) at bay. Their interaction gives voice to some of Williamsís most extraordinary language ó even in the slightly truncated acting edition that Wilson has elected to use. (The published edition is in three acts rather than two and runs about 15 minutes longer. Thereís more poetry in it, and I prefer it, but the difference in quality may be a matter of taste.)
Annalee Jefferies is a master of Williamsís language; her performance may not erase memories of Cherry Jonesís Hannah in Robert Fallsís great revival at the Roundabout Theatre in 1996, but itís no insult to say that sheís second only to Jones. Alyssa Bresnahan overdoes Maxineís Texas-sexpot quality, but she tracks the characterís increasing desperation, and sheís excellent in the final scene. James Pritchett, his voice airy and thin, makes a witty Nonno. Natalie Brown (as a tyrannical schoolteacher on Shannonís tour) and Helmar Augustus Cooper (as the man appointed by the tour company to usurp Shannon) contribute convincing sketches. That leaves James Colby, who probably wouldnít seem too bad as Shannon if he werenít called on to carry the play pretty much on his back. But thatís the role, and the fact that Colby lacks the preacherís sexual charm and lyrical range is a liability for the production. When Shannonís outbursts move an audience, The Night of the Iguana can be devastating. Gorgeous and engaging as it is, the Hartford Stage revival comes just short of being truly moving.