Tennessee Williams had a weird thing about hotels, beaches and death. In his play The Night of the Iguana, currently onstage at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, the rundown Costa Verde beach resort in Mexico acts as the holiday getaway for the Grim Reaper. Every guest who checks in is on the brink of a breakdown. One of them dies.
Director René Moreno, Dallas' best director for pushing actors to their best work, has assembled a strong, sexy ensemble for this production. It's not an easy play to do. The setting on the hotel's wide veranda has to accommodate a lot of comings and goings. There's also a rainstorm, achieved beautifully on CTD's tiny stage. (Set design by Rodney Dobbs does visual magic with see-through walls affording glimpses of three small hotel rooms.)
Handsome actor Ashley Wood plays the lead, defrocked Episcopalian minister T. Lawrence Shannon, who calls himself "a man of God ... on vacation." He's hiding out from his bad habits that include drinking heavily and sleeping with the teenage daughters of the upright Baptist women who hire Shannon as a tour guide. Kicked off his latest tour for deflowering yet another virgin (played with swirling teenage angst by Jessica Renee Russell), Shannon heads for the Costa Verde, owned by his old friend Maxine (Cindee Mayfield). She's newly widowed and nearly broke, but enjoying a midlife sexual awakening, thanks to the handsome young Mexican men who work in her hotel.
Two other characters, Nonno, at 97 the world's oldest poet (Terry Vandivort, giving his finest performance in years), and Hannah, his artistic grifter of a granddaughter (Elizabeth Van Winkle), appear at the hotel, penniless and pleading for lodging in return for Hannah's watercolors of the rain forest. Maxine doesn't feel charitable but Shannon convinces her to let them stay. Things happen between Hannah and Shannon that change both of their outlooks on life and love.
With every living creature in this play in a state of desperation, including the captured lizard the busboys want to eat for dinner, the atmosphere of Iguana is electric. Too many productions go right to sweaty hysteria for every scene, but Moreno knows how to set the pace with his actors. At times, this Iguana moves with the frisky comedic rhythms of a farce, what with characters slamming in and out of those hotel rooms. Then tension builds and finally explodes like the tropical storm we hear rumbling overhead (the evocative sound design is by Mason York).
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Williams' wit comes through beautifully here. Laughter gives way to tears by the end, which is how Williams must have wanted it to go.
It's the best production Contemporary has done this season. Maybe one of the best this company has ever done.
The Night of the Iguana continues through March 4 at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Call 214-828-0094.