Farewell, Good Night

The role of artistic associate at Dallas Theater Center is turning into a briefer and briefer stepping stone on a long career path: Preston Lane follows previous associate Jonathan Moscone's departure a mere two and a half years after Lane came to work alongside Richard Hamburger. And just as Moscone returned near his native San Francisco to take a festival post, Lane's going back to his home state of North Carolina to open a new theater in Greensboro. The Yale School of Drama graduate has this crazy idea that theater can and should be nurtured in places besides New York and Chicago. His charming blend of self-deprecation, theatrical knowledge, and clear sense of what he wants to do with theater will certainly help him tame a new cultural frontier.

Before he departs Dallas, he's scaling a mountain called Tennessee Williams by directing The Night of the Iguana, his first foray into one of the Southern legend's full-length plays. It also happens to have been his first experience with Williams and, indirectly, theater itself: He saw John Huston's film version starring Richard Burton as a kid.

"I was home sick from elementary school when I watched it on TV," he remembers. "And I absolutely fell in love with the story. But I didn't realize until I went back and read the play how much Huston changed it. For one thing, it was filmed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and part of the reason they got money to do it was because they wanted to turn the place into a tourist attraction. In the play, the hotel [where the tourists are stranded] is supposed to be ramshackle, the end of the line. I could never understand why Richard Burton wanted to leave Ava Gardner and that beautiful hotel.

"The movie was set in the 1960s, but Williams had originally written it to take place in the early '40s, before the end of World War II. I like plays that deal with one era in conflict with another, when you get a sense that there's a shift in time. And it's Williams' most spiritual play. I like those issues, too, about what Western theologies do to our concept of God."

Lane brought The Night of the Iguana to Richard Hamburger, thinking it was perfectly aligned with the DTC artistic director's love of "actors' plays" such as The Seagull. Lane's only other season-subscription directing credit had been the marvelously, cerebrally chaotic U.S. premiere of Inexpressible Island, a play about Arctic explorers confronting inchoate Modernism while trapped inside an ice cave.

The Night of the Iguana, about a group of tourists languishing at a seedy Mexican flophouse, presages the kind of international despair that would explode with the discovery of Hitler's death camps. It even features a pair of Nazi tourists, people Tennessee Williams himself had encountered in Mexico. Hamburger noted this and asked Lane to do it instead.

Lane notes that people often refer to Iguana as Williams' last great play, after which his dependency on alcohol and pills kicked into overdrive. "I have tried to defend his later works," he claims. "He had always been able to draw from his own life, open it up to others. Eventually, though, he went down so deep into himself that it became too personal. It was like eavesdropping on all the embarrassing and icky confessions of someone else's therapy session. In a late piece like Clothes From a Summer Hotel, you could feel him really writing in the first act. Then the second act deteriorates into drug-induced rambling."

Lane strikes a rueful note when he discusses how badly Williams reacted to his fall from critical favor and remarks that, in general, America doesn't treat its older playwrights very well. At some point, when the author no longer became useful, he was discarded. This is echoed in Lane's favorite quote about Williams: "A critic once said, 'Tennessee Williams is someone we pay to have our nightmares for us.'"