A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

Most of us, critics included, had never heard of this forgotten play by Tennessee Williams. Reviews were mixed; it ran for three weeks off-Broadway in 1979 and never secured the funding necessary to transfer to a Broadway house.

But we can thank Denver Center Theatre Company director Laird Williamson, who had worked with Williams at ACT in San Francisco in 1976, for resurrecting it, and giving us a glimpse of the master's craft at a time when his life was in decline and his talents were in question.

More so than in most of Williams' works, the historical context for A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, set in the mid-1930's, plays an important part. The role of women in American society was in flux, somewhere between the post-WWI right of suffrage and the WWII right to rivet, with the glass ceiling a distant, future obstruction.

Social relationships, of course, reflect these political and economic restrictions, and Williams makes telling choices in shaping the characters and situations of the four strikingly-drawn women, whose lives come together in a St. Louis apartment building that sits a trolley-car ride from Creve Coeur Park. Caught between the pangs of growing independence and the ever-present Hollywood- and jazz-fed notions of romance and sexuality, Williams' characters struggle for a sense of identity and belonging.

Photo of (L to R) Carol Halstead as Helena and Caitlin O’Connell as Dorothea
(L to R) Carol Halstead as Helena
and Caitlin O’Connell as Dorothea
Photo: Terry Shapiro
At the center of what must be described, to pleasant surprise, as a comedy, is Dorothea, a school teacher and "woman of a certain age." Much like Amanda Wingfield from Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," "Dottie" creates a Prince Charming out of a cad, and fills her hours with a fantasy of silver-screen proportions. But that is where the two characters' similarities end.

Starry-eyed and wrapped in a luxuriant Southern dialect to compliment her tangerine lingerie, Caitlin O'Connell makes for a spell-binding protagonist. She moves easily between the near-farcical and tragicomic elements of the story, giving full range to Williams' imaginative intrigues.

Photo of (L to R) Robynn Rodriguez as Miss Gluck and Kathleen M. Brady as Bodey
(L to R) Robynn Rodriguez as Miss Gluck
and Kathleen M. Brady as Bodey
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Dottie's landlord, Bodey, is a second-generation German-American, whose robust diet and garish tastes dominate the apartment. She dreams that Dollie will hook up with her equally ample and fashion-challenged twin brother, Buddy, who looms offstage, just a phone call away.

Seamlessly blending Bodey's earthiness and surprising outbursts of psychological insight, Kathleen Brady creates a presence as large and big-hearted as the color spectrum of her character's decorating scheme. Her Bodey is fully capable of standing up to Dottie's haughty school teacher friend, Helena.

Here, Carol Halstead provides one of her most memorable characterizations, interjecting mocking laughter into icy put-downs of her counterparts, each barb delivered with a telling tic. Through Helena, Williams paints a contrasting response to single womanhood, linking upward-mobility with a loss of compassion.

Robynn Rodriguez, as Miss Gluck, a ghostly manic-depressive visitor from upstairs, is a fascinating combination of half-crazed derelict, overflowing with Germanic slang ramblings, and a prescient fool, willing to point fingers and throw water at her antagonist. Disheveled and soiled, yet sporting a devilish grin at the outcome, Rodriguez offers a compelling mirror into the playwright's often desperate heart.

While Williams' lyricism does not reach the same heights in this late, and albeit lighter, work as in his famous tragedies, his talent for rich symbolism and telling plot devices has lost little of its earlier strength, and his dialogue remains witty and sharp.

Although we are moved by Dottie's affirming response to her climactic set-back, it is a bittersweet redemption, fulfilling a need that appears to be more of society's making than one which will ultimately satisfy her own potential.

Nevertheless, Williams abandons his penchant for tragedy, and we are uplifted, after so much heartbreak (crève-coeur), to end up here, on a lovely Sunday afternoon. Despite appearances at his end, Williams seems to have found some measure of affirmation.

Director Williamson has made the most of his very talented cast, and the set, designed by the late Andrew Yelusich and his successor Lisa Orzolek, is a playful mix of camp and kitsch, evoking a Zeitgeist dominated by the desire to escape from the nagging Depression and the chilling drums of war.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur runs through March 12th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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