By Lynn Venhaus

During the ten-minute intermission, I overheard a woman in the audience tell her companion: “I hope my kids don’t find my diaries.”

Whoa, and that reaction was before The Midnight Company’s seismic second act of “Rodney’s Wife.” I surmised other parents probably shared that sentiment at some point during this unsettling, distressing drama written by Richard Nelson.

Director Joe Hanrahan, who is eager to explore different dimensions, does not shy away from edgy or dark, thinks cinematically, and has an affinity for the period and the inner workings of show business, slowly pulling back the curtain, so to speak.

He has assembled a cast of six local acting heavyweights, who illustrate why they are so highly regarded, and the retro Italian setting is a designers’ dream.

The daughter of Rodney and his second wife, who found her mother’s diary from an eventful summer in 1962, introduces herself and takes us back to that time.

Kelly Howe is believable in dual roles, carefully choosing what emotion to display when. The statuesque Fay is a former actress who had married a widower 10 years ago. Rodney (John Wolbers) is now a fading movie actor. Is she content in her current role as “Rodney’s wife”?

In a quietly shattering performance, Howe starts out staying in the background while other big personalities suck the air out of the room — and then tries not to be suffocated.

Kelly Howe as Fay. Photo by Joey Rumpell

Her arrogant, domineering husband and his overbearing, busybody sister Eva (Rachel Tibbetts) try to control the temperature in the room. Eva was married to Rodney’s manager but is now a widow.

For people who pretend to live out loud, something is obviously ‘off,’ and subtle clues poke through the facades. Nelson builds tension, with anxiety and desperation fighting for attention in a shades of Anton Chekhov meets Tennessee Williams way, minus all-encompassing gloom and predictably overwrought hysteria.

Without spoiling any crucial plot turns, “Rodney’s Wife” has many layers and moving parts in its portrayal of a dysfunctional family. Oh, it’s complicated, all right. The melodramatic action is akin to divulging bombshells on a TV soap opera, and torching others with the secrets.

A prolific American writer, Nelson won a Tony Award for best book of a musical (James Joyce’s “The Dead” in 2000), and several Obie Awards. “Rodney’s Wife” was mounted off-Broadway in 2004 at the Playwrights Horizons, starring David Strathairn and Jessica Chastain as father and daughter.

As Fay prepares for a small celebration in a rented villa on the outskirts of Rome, well-heeled and seemingly carefree folks rush in, laughing and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Rodney’s daughter Lee (Summer Baer), who has been mostly away at boarding school and college, has surprised her father with big news — she is engaged to Ted, a smart, amiable American writer (Oliver Bacus).

Rodney is regaling his future son-in-law with boorish moviemaking stories. Turns out the actor, a legend in his own mind, is filming a spaghetti western, but this is not exactly Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name. These are the low-budget early years of the Italian fascination with the American West, before Sergio Leone would make his mark with this distinctive genre.

Dissatisfied and unpleasant, Rodney is rescued from his miserable experience by his new manager Henry (Ben Ritchie), who drops off a script that he views as more suitable for his talents, only they’d have to leave for America the next day. In addition, Henry, while professional and practical, has his own worries back home.

And why is Fay like a cat on a hot tin roof in the midst of the merriment?

Summer Baer and Ben Ritchie. Photo by Joey Rumpell

What started out as a forced happy family gathering unravels into shock and betrayals, attitudes are laid bare, and scabs are picked at and reformed. Some prefer not to play along, others mask their feelings for survival, and the perpetual role-playing is ongoing.

All six are clinging – whether to fading beauty, to their comfortable lifestyle, to forging a new identity, to the past, to keeping up appearances, their deceptions, or to whom they think they are/should be.

As the self-absorbed Rodney, John Wolters is revelatory, displaying a dramatic heft that you don’t often see when he’s trotting the boards, usually (but not always) in lighter fare. I wish Nelson had not written Rodney as a cliché.

Sartorially splendid, Rachel Tibbetts’ Eva craves the spotlight as much as her actor brother, and she fools no one as a busybody Karen trying to tell everyone else how to live their lives. Her equally loud brother indulges her, and Tibbetts embraces being abrasive in a role that’s mostly comical, but she conveys enough depth to make it more than one-note.

As the not-fully-formed 25-year-old adult daughter Lee, Summer Baer modulates the tones between dutiful daughter, her stepmom’s pal, tolerant of her hovering aunt and supportive fiancé to Ted. But what is it that she wants? A conflicted Lee doesn’t appear to be as forceful expressing what she wants as everyone around her seems to know what’s best for her.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

Although Bacus portrays Ted as assured as he’s making first impressions, it is as if Lee has blithely brought a prey into the lion’s den. You feel for this guy, hoping he’s better at seeing the red flags than we are.

Nelson has boxed himself into a corner narratively, and both Fay and Lee are frustratingly enigmatic – but the pair of actresses do everything they can for more fully realized interpretations.

However, his savvy choice of Rome 1962 is an exciting canvas for Bess Moynihan, whose scenic and lighting designs are astonishing, and for Liz Henning, whose astute costume designs are some of the best she’s ever done on local stages. Miriam Whatley has designed props that are ideally suited to the atmosphere.

Moynihan’s flair for striking production design – complete with an inviting patio –provides a good flow for character movements. Her superb lighting, especially the natural dawn, effectively establishes the shifting moods over the course of a night and day.

The drama’s impressive sleek look touches on what an attractive playground Italy was in the 1960s, not only because of the cultural revolution in movies, music, art, fashion, and style but how post-war Italy was putting fascism in the rear-view mirror and hedonism was in full throttle.

Hanrahan and company are successful in creating an intoxicating vibe of exotic travel, lush surroundings, and a pop art palette without having the benefit of idyllic sun-drenched exteriors. (I mean, we’ve seen “Three Coins in the Fountain”! I digress…).

As an example, Federico Fellini had unleashed “La Dolce Vita” in 1960 and was working on his opus, “8-1/2” (released in 1963), and he wasn’t the only director getting buzz in this new golden age. Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avventura” also was released in 1960.

Rodney looks like a guy who could be driving an Alfa Romeo while the handsome, well-mannered Ted could be tooling down the Amalfi Coast in a Fiat, doing his best Marcello Mastroanni.

The women wear their stylish cocktail dresses and chic casual attire with aplomb, sometimes adorned with bright scarves, and their hair is fixed in elegant styles – Lee’s swept-back ponytail, Eva’s classic elegant knot. The air of luxury permeates the small space.

During intermission or before/after the show, be sure to view a special fashion collection in the Chapel, which highlights haute couture of the era, and the designers, colors and styles that were famous.

Because of the fine performances, The Midnight Company has elevated this work, sharpening the explosive interpersonal dynamics. With inspired highly skilled craftmanship from the creative team, The Chapel’s intimate space has been admirably transformed into a mid-century modern with an international aesthetic.

Using the irony of such a luxurious landscape, Nelson has basically imprisoned his characters, who are products of their time, for better or for worse, which makes the sorrow and the unspoken regrets hang heavy in the air.

The Midnight Company presents “Rodney’s Wife” from July 7 to July 23, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 10 and 17, at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive, St. Louis. For more information, visit: www.midnightcompany.com.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Desperation hangs thick in the air in Tennessee Williams’ richly detailed “The
Night of the Iguana,” the remarkable centerpiece to this year’s fourth annual
Tennessee Williams Festival.

At a rundown resort in Mexico, people are there to escape –
or to hide. Everyone has secrets. They can get away, but they can’t run, just
like the big fat iguana that’s tied up offstage.

The setting is not inconsequential. You can tell Cosa Verde
has seen better days, and so have most of these characters. But each has a
story to tell – and those looking for mercy, a glimmer of hope.

In his grand, striking poetic exposition, Williams tackles
a lot here – a former minister who is a tormented soul, three primary women of
different types and temperatures, and an assortment of workers and tourists. He
seizes on how people fare in volatile times.

A group of crass Nazi-sympathizing Germans on holiday stand
out for their gaudiness, and those roles might be tiny, but Williams is crafty
in his characterizations. After all, the play takes place in the early 1940s,
before World War II commandeers everything.

The metaphors are also rampant in this multi-layered
masterpiece. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created such a distinct corner of
the universe that you can practically feel the oppressive heat. Each cabin is
like an isolation pod, mosquito net hanging, a place of solitude and reflection
for some, but for others who feel trapped by their circumstances, a cage.

Dunsi Dai’s scenic design, photo by ProPhotoSTLThe brilliant Jon Ontiveros’ lighting design is a marvel of
moods and atmosphere, emphasizing Williams’ intentions through Dai’s
interpretation.

Ellie Schwetye, whose sound design is always memorable,
layers the outdoor cacophony with lapping ocean waves, which changes to different
noticeable nocturnal noises.

Meticulous director Tom Ocel has contained the sprawling
story to emphasize temptation, loneliness, loss and the despair that comes from
being lost.

This landmine of human emotions, ready to explode at any
moment, is based on Williams’ 1948 short story, which was then developed into
three acts for a Broadway production in 1961. A Tony nominee for Best Play
(defeated by “A Man for All Seasons”) in 1962, actress Margaret Leighton won Best
Leading Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Hannah Jelkes. Two years later,
it was adapted into a steamy movie, directed by John Huston, that starred
Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon.

The tormented Rev. Shannon (James Andrew Butz, in an
extraordinary performance), who fell from grace in spectacular fashion – or, as
he says: “heresy and fornication – in the same week,” is a self-destructive
shell of a human being. He’s now driving a tour bus. Oh, the irony of escorting
a group of women from a Baptist college for their pleasure.

But at a cheap coastal hotel, they’ve turned against him,
the staff is on edge, and the proprietor is just trying to get through another
day without incidents. LaVonne Byers is Maxine Faulk, the recently widowed
owner who was something in her prime. However, she is now weary of other people’s
drama – but has a soft spot for Shannon, whom she has known a long time. He can
push her buttons, nevertheless. Byers plays this vigorous woman with her
customary precision, turning Maxine into a strong, no-nonsense type whose past
is filled with hard-fought lessons. She tosses off some terrific comical lines,
too.

The brewing tempest grows out of its teacup into a full-blown
squall.

Summer Baer and Jim Butz, photo by ProPhotoSTLThe pretty young Charlotte Goodall, 16, has fancied this
mysterious Shannon, and vice-versa, thus resulting in all hell breaking loose
and a serious charge of statutory rape. This is the starting part. Summer Baer
is impressive as the innocent, naïve lass.

As Miss Judith Fellowes, entrusted with Charlotte’s care, Elizabeth
Ann Townsend is all blustery and self-righteous in her contempt for Shannon.
She wants justice, and she is going to get it.

Nisi Sturgis and Harry Weber. Photo by ProPhotoSTLAlong comes the refined Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis), whose
manners belie a living-on-the-edge situation. An artistic woman whose only
source of income is freelance painting and sketch work, she has accompanied her
beloved grandfather, “Nonno” — Jonathan Coffin, a poet. They survive together,
although he is ailing. They are just trying to get by, using whatever means
they can. Harry Weber imbues Nonna with dignity.

For the prickly, mercurial Shannon, Hannah becomes
something of a lifeline. She tries to save his humanity, and her spirit is revived
through their encounters. Williams makes you believe in the power of their
connection — “The magic of the other.” So do the actors — Butz and Sturgis
are stunning in their scenes together.

Butz pretty much raises the bar for every actor in town.
How he spirals out of control and goes through every emotion, depicting Shannon
on the brink of a breakdown, is astonishing. He’s always a robust life-force on
stage, but this portrayal is some of the finest acting we’ve been privileged to
see in St. Louis.

Sturgis, whose measured demeanor is exactly how you imagine
Deborah Kerr in the movie, delivers one of the finest female performances of
the year. She conveys the restraint, compassion and grace of her character
beautifully.

Nisi Sturgis and Jim Butz, Photo by ProPhotoSTLOcel moves the large cast around to the beats of the
fun-and-sun coastal setting, with a sense of foreboding and something’s
off-kilter. Again, the irony of the hellish happenings occurring at such a
slice-of-heaven paradise.

Costume Designer Garth Dunbar has a keen eye to distinguish
the personalities through their outfits.

Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay and
Hannah Lee Eisenbath provide lively portraits of the garish, loud Germans oblivious
to anything but their own needs.

In minor roles, Greg Johnston is Jake Latta, Shannon’s
supervisor, and Spencer Sickmann is employee Hank, Victor Mendez is worker
Pedro and Luis Aguilar is worker Pancho.

The crisp stage direction and the ensemble’s commitment to
immerse themselves to tell this story, with all its messy interactions, make
this production stand out.

If last year’s award-winning TWF mainstage show, “A
Streetcar Named Desire,” was a leap of faith, this year’s centerpiece is a masterful
coming-of-age, a major step forward, strengthening Williams’ legacy and continuing
a vibrant tradition.

Tennessee
Williams Festival presents “A Night of the Iguana” May 9 through May 19 at The
Grandel Theatre in the Grand Arts Center. Evening performances Thursday through
Saturday are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday is at 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.twstl.org