Tennessee Williams has been a local favorite for decades, ever since December 27, 1944, when Claudia Cassidy, the fearsome Chicago Tribune theater critic, said Williams turned the theater “into a place of steadily increasing enchantment” with his new play, The Glass Menagerie. Cassidy saw the play on three successive nights and wrote about the play at various times with great enthusiasm. Eventually, a group of New York theater people came to Chicago to see what she was making such a fuss about. Most people agree that Cassidy’s review jump-started Williams’ career.
Philip Dawkins’ lovely new play, The Gentleman Caller, soulfully directed by Cody Estle at Raven Theatre, takes place at that moment of Williams’ life, when he is about to change from unknown and unappreciated to a great dramatic hero. It is also the moment when William Inge’s life begins to change.
The two men meet in Inge’s St. Louis “not so not so garden apartment,” where Williams (Rudy Galvan) has come to be interviewed for Inge’s newspaper. (Williams is a St. Louis resident, frantic to escape from his repressive family.) Inge (Curtis Edward Jackson) is an arts critic for a St. Louis newspaper (“I write for the largest paper in the world’s largest small town”), but he just happens to have a draft of his first play, which he asks Williams to read.
It’s November 1944 and The Glass Menagerie (which Williams originally titled The Gentleman Caller) is preparing for its late December opening at the Civic Theatre in Chicago.
The two men are immediately attracted to each other, but Inge is in denial about his sexuality (despite what happens in the first five minutes of the play). Galvan as Williams, on the other hand, is sly, sexy, funny and totally open to adventures of the flesh with an attractive man. The two drink, talk and spar back and forth about writing, love, attraction and secrecy throughout act one. Inge is fearful of being seen and found out and Williams has already become a flamboyant practitioner of his homosexuality. Inge’s personality makes him inclined to be an observer while the charismatic Williams tries to cajole him into jumping into life.
“There are two kinds of people in the world, Mr. Critic: those who participate, and those who spectate. The spectator, of course, believes their anonymity in the darkness provides them a sort of safety. But that’s a dangerous assumption, Billy Boy. The more you watch, the more you’ll see.“
Act two takes place on New Year’s Eve 1944 in Williams’ room at the Hotel Sherman in downtown Chicago (demolished in 1980 to be replaced by the Thompson Center). Williams’ play has opened to mostly positive reviews (Cassidy gets name-checked) and Williams is working on his next play. His typewriter sits on a small desk and the room is littered with wadded-up paper. The bar, of course, is well-stocked. Inge has persuaded his editors to send him to Chicago to review Williams’ play and the two meet for the second time.
Williams narrates his own story, opening each act and closing the play standing stageside. At the end, he summarizes the lives, creative and personal, of the two important playwrights.
I have seen Rudy Galvan play supporting roles many times and admired his work, but this is the first time I’ve seen him play a leading role. It was revelatory to see this actor become Tennessee Williams, with his mustache, sly smile, sexy manner and wicked sense of humor. Galvan gives an extraordinary performance. Jackson’s performance is strong and poignant, although his character is subdued and less colorful than Williams.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s scenic design creates two perfectly designed spaces, completely switched over at intermission by the crew led by stage manager Tara Malpass. Claire Stone is responsible for props and the important set dressing.
The Gentleman Caller is Estle’s first directorial outing for Raven since he became artistic director. It’s based on the true story of the friendship between Williams and Inge. It’s also the first play commissioned by Raven Theatre, which has produced 11 Williams plays and two Inge plays.
Dawkins, a Chicago playwright, is author of many plays including The Burn (produced recently at Steppenwolf for Young Adults), Charm, The Homosexuals, and Le Switch. He says he often writes while riding his bike (well, he talks to his phone while riding).
Eclipse Theatre is launching its William Inge season this month with Natural Affection. Their other two Inge plays will be Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.
The Gentleman Caller continues at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., through May 27. Tickets are $46 (discounts available) for performances Thursday-Sunday.
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My thanks to Chris Jones and his book, Bigger, Brighter, Louder: 150 Years of Chicago Theater as Seen by Chicago Tribune Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2013) for the excerpts from Cassidy’s 1944 review and the followup story.