Whatever gets you through the night

Small Craft Warnings at Off the Wall Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

Tennessee Williams is surely one of our most lyrical chroniclers of emotional messes; he arranges them so skillfully that, like one of Robert Rauschenberg’s combine sculptures, what would normally repel us becomes strangely beautiful: art out of trash. So it is in Small Craft Warnings currently manifesting in a modest but infinitely compassionate production at Off the Wall Theatre, where Williams unfolds the inner lives of a handful of losers into illuminated renderings of humanity. Anyone who cares about theater—or about life, even—will find the play deeply rewarding.

At the fag-end of America, butted up against the vast Pacific and the Mexican wilderness, Monk’s Place is the kind of tavern where everyone knows your name—but not necessarily in a good way. Its patrons live on the fringe of the economy: modern nomads, except for Monk, the titular proprietor, whose upstairs apartment beckons like a mythical dream of home. The others live like animals: in a tiny room over the game arcade; or in a wheeled trailer; or scraping by paycheck to paycheck; or crashing on (or sharing) a variety of extra beds. One of them is literally on a cross-country solo bicycle trip: the rootless isolation of America made plain. They exhibit a peculiarly Williamsian absence of personal boundaries: not so much friends as enmeshed with one another in great co-dependent clusterfucks, frequently devolving into screaming scuffles but rarely into actual violence. Neither cultured nor very educated— I hate to say it, but in this day and age they might well be avid admirers of you-know-who.

In this late play, Williams offers little in the way of plot or structure, but much bar-room philosophizing. Embracing the dramatic principle of  “drink, drugs, and delirium,” to rise above everyday speech, he does little more than give his dead-end characters a snootful and then stand them up to deliver monologues that express in greater or lesser detail the essence of their beings. As presented by a director and cast that bring their whole hearts to the task, it’s compelling to see. Director Dale Gutzman has coached his players into remarkably sensitive realizations of their characters. As they stand before us telling their stories, we can see their raw humanity in their eyes. There really isn’t an actor who doesn’t inhabit their role fully and truthfully: Robert Hirschi’s barkeep oversees his clients’ dramas with tender compassion, never judging them even when they fail mightily. Mike Pocaro is thoroughly credible as a cynical doctor, a smart man fallen on hard times. Both Nathan Danzer as a sad sack loser and Max Williamson as a brutish gigolo named Bill show us the lost boys within their men’s bodies. Conversely, Jenny Kosek somehow lets us see that her pathetic character’s helplessness is actually a canny survival skill; while as Leona, the big-mouthed, big-hearted, judgemental mother hen of this odd little chicken shack, Marilyn White creates an outsized persona that we miss when she’s gone, even as we sigh with relief when she leaves the stage.

Williams treats his sexuality with particular frankness, particularly in the characters of a temporary couple who happen to be passing through. James Strange’s speech as Quentin, a jaded Hollywood writer, burns us with the depth of his self-loathing and regret; Jake Russell as his momentary fling brings an unspoiled innocence that we fear for. Many of the other characters also place themselves in relation to the gay world; Leona explains how she loves being gay men’s female ally; Bill the gigolo plans to lure Quentin into the men’s room and roll him later; Monk explains the difficulties of running a gay bar: it leads to police raids, needing bribes and mafia protection. But ultimately, every character is an outcast of sorts; Williams’ outsider status lets him see the living hearts beating within people we might ordinarily swerve to avoid.

In his program notes, Gutzman writes “This play is about what it means to be ‘HUMAN!’” For this playwright, it especially means facing up to our own abject state: in the end we are each of us alone, vulnerable, full of yearning, a “poor forked naked animal,” set loose in the great ocean of the universe to navigate as best we can; to find happiness—if not forever, at least for tonight.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

Small Craft Warnings
by Tennessee Williams

playing through March 3


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