Tennessee Williams described The Two-Character Play as his "most beautiful" drama after A Streetcar Named Desire. He may have been a bit too in love with his own words. It's a haunting piece laced with poetry, madness and tragedy, but it's no Streetcar.
The current production of The Two-Character Play by WingSpan Theatre Company at the Bath House Cultural Center, directed by Susan Sargeant, does make a strong case for moving it higher in the canon of Williams' work. It's certainly more interesting than Small Craft Warnings and The Rose Tattoo, among other rarely performed Williams pieces gathering dust in the shadows of The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Two-Character Play, originally titled Out Cry, ran for a mere 12 performances on Broadway in 1973.)
Maybe it's the sensational performance of Dallas actress Lulu Ward as Clare, one of the two characters (the other is Clare's brother Felice, played by Kevin Scott Keating), that makes the play feel more substantial than it really is. Ward is not seen enough on Dallas stages. She is at that age — too old for an ingénue, too young for Miss Daisy — that makes her hard to cast. But in Two-Character Play, she is a revelation, baring new dimensions in her acting. One minute she's a ditzy girl, the next a tortured soul begging for release from memories too painful to endure. The alacrity with which Ward shifts among these emotions, with which she twists from solid reality to feverish insanity, is dizzying. And impressive.
The play puts Clare, a not-young actress, and Felice, her manager and playwright, backstage in a shoddy hinterland playhouse. (Set by Nick Brethauer and lighting by David Allen Powers work visual magic in the cold Bath House space.) The two have been abandoned by their traveling troupe, but Clare is determined to go on with a show. Some show. Any show. Maybe the two-person play she and Felice have been performing all their lives. Its plot mirrors their own family's darkest hours. Mama shot Daddy and then herself, leaving the children to raise themselves. The play-within-the-play is Williams mocking Williams.
"I've always suspected that theaters are prisons for players," says Clare.
"And for writers of plays," adds Felice.
The Two-Character Play allowed Williams to vent displeasure at being defined too narrowly as a writer of Southern Gothic melodramas. And all through the script are references to his relationship with his beloved sister Rose, lobotomized in an institution (reference Suddenly, Last Summer for details of that story). Felice, caring for his fractured sister, also taunts her mental fragility.
If only Lulu Ward had a more worthy acting partner in this play than Keating. He bellows when he could whisper. He shouts himself hoarse and acts in an overwrought manner so detached from Ward's that it's an even greater testament to her talent that she's able to overcome the obstacle of his performance.