So, if nothing else, this review should communicate a sense of gratitude to the Firehouse Theatre Project for putting up one of Williams' lesser-known plays, "Kingdom of Earth." In fact, this production should get a blue ribbon stamped: "For Conspicuous Service to Local Theatergoers."
The play takes place in 1960 in a Mississippi Delta farmhouse. Lot (Joseph Aaron Papa) returns home with a new wife. After a bit of stage-setting, the newlyweds soon encounter Chicken, Lot's half-brother, a "dark complected" man with anger-control issues.
Lot is an exaggerated version of the sickly, zoned-out, mama-obsessed, sensitive male found in so many of Williams' plays. In fact, he is such an extreme specimen, Williams was charged with self-parody in vicious attacks by critics after the 1968 Broadway premiere of a longer version titled "The Seven Descents of Myrtle."
Playing the role of Lot can't be easy because it consists largely of staring into space, wearing woman's clothes and silently contemplating a dead mother. There isn't a lot of modulation in Papa's performance, but he does a good job of showing a man inexorably slipping into nothingness.
Myrtle (Jacqueline O'Connor), Lot's new wife, is a floozy with a big raunchy heart. There's one passage in the play that says it all:
that's the first time I've gone that far with a man, no matter how strongly attracted.
Chicken: You mean on the first date?
Mytle: I mean practically never.
O'Connor nails the role. She smoothly delivers reams of tongue-twisting dialogue as she creates a character who's polyester-coarse yet touchingly vulnerable.
Scott Wichmann plays Chicken, Lot's animalistic half-brother. Bile appears to seep from every pore. His energetic performance keeps the dramatic meter humming at maximum. Unfortunately, his overheated characterization also obscures some of the more interesting sexual and racial themes oozing from the emotional swampland. In the script, there's a tangy hormonal attraction between Chicken and Myrtle that doesn't quite make it to the stage. Instead, it appears Myrtle is acting almost entirely as the result of Chicken's coercion.
Also, if you manage to listen past Chicken's axe-murderer bluster, you can detect legitimate racial grievances in his words. Depending on how you look at it, Chicken may have been the only black protagonist in a Tennessee Williams play; it might have been useful to explore more of Chicken's crude attempts at emancipation.
Director Bill Patton directed a 1976 off-Broadway production of this play and the pedigree adds an intangible bit of authenticity to the show. After the decline of Williams' Broadway career, it was in the smaller theaters that his work continued to thrive. Appropriately, the show has the feel of a high quality off-Broadway production.
Tad Burrell's two-level set is more expansive than most sets constructed at the Firehouse. The seediness envelops the theater without edging into Li'l Abner Land.
The play doesn't exhibit the exquisite perfection of Williams' earlier works, but it's still a thing to behold. He keeps the suspense going with dual devices: the rapid physical decomposition of Lot and an impending flood that might very well wipe out the house and all three of its inhabitants.
Though the plays of Williams' late period are no longer so maligned, they are nonetheless rarely performed. This is an opportunity to see a fine production of an overlooked gem. S
"Kingdom of Earth" continues through Oct. 2 at the Firehouse Theatre, 355-2001. Tickets are $20 each.