The Actors Company Theatre’s (TACT’s) production of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row faithfully and utterly brings to life the pathos and deep longing for which Tennessee Williams’ characters are known. TACT received special permission from the Williams estate to produce the play in New York for the first time in more than thirty years. In this tender and affecting tale of unrequited love, John Buchanan, Jr. (Todd Gearhart) is a young, upwardly mobile physician and bacteriologist. He returns on holidays to his family home in Glorious Hill, Mississippi. To describe John’s mother, Mrs. Buchanan (Darrie Lawrence), as doting is to grossly understate her behavior. She hugs her “Little John,” nuzzles him, massages his feet, and never misses an opportunity to “rescue” him from his insecure and eccentric young neighbor, Alma Winemiller, who has, since childhood, secretly and painfully loved John from afar.
Alma desperately desires to experience the wide world beyond Glorious Hill and the puritanical household in which she resides with her minister father and mentally damaged mother. Alma is rigorously controlled by her father, the Reverend Winemiller, who constantly rebukes her for her animated manners, her nervousness and other idiosyncrasies—stammering, sometimes hysterical laughter, and conducting a daily feeding for the local bird population in the town square.
Nicknamed the “Nightingale of the Delta” for her singing appearances at municipal functions, Alma is bursting with energy and love for the world of ideas, yet, with only the social interaction of a set of bristly oddballs at Monday night gatherings, she is suffocating and rapidly becoming a spinster. Alma laments that those who can give the institution of marriage an aspect of transcendence are precisely the ones who somehow remain alone.
The play itself, despite numerous incarnations starting with Williams’ 1941 short story Bobo, remains flawed. Its ending is forced and may appear to some as oddly dismissive of Alma, whose existence so dramatically implodes at the departure of John from her life that she utterly, and perhaps incredulously, reverses her values. An allegorical plot line about a relative who, in financial straits, deliberately burns down his mechanical museum, the Musee Mechanique in New Orleans, and along with it the famous “Mechanical Bird Girl,” never really gets traction and remains unresolved.
Yet, the acting is often stunning and more than compensates for any faults in the text. Mary Bacon is heartbreaking and pitiable as the stifled Alma, settling desperately for a sad and contrived New Year’s Eve fling at a seedy motel with the uncomfortable John. Darrie Lawrence bestows a cunning ruthlessness to Mrs. Buchanan, who will do anything to separate her ambitious son from his weird neighbor. Larry Keith’s Reverend Winemiller is a model of resolute prudishness and arrogance. And, as “Little John,” Todd Gearhart walks an appropriately fine line between a fascination with Alma that approaches one he might hold for a specimen in a laboratory, and true admiration for her unique qualities.
Bill Clarke’s set features a beautiful mesh back screen that imbues a dream-like quality to the characters who pass behind it; the play begins and ends in its murkiness. David Toser’s costuming expertly captures the play’s pre-World War I period and lends a proper formality to the staunch uptightness of virtually all the characters. Lucretia Briceno’s lighting and Darryl Bornstein’s sound so uncannily mimic holiday fireworks that several audience members visibly flinched, startled.
This production successfully provokes the audience to consider just what qualifies a person as “eccentric.” The cast adeptly accentuates the flaws of their characters. Mrs. Buchanan, harboring detailed and precious fantasies about what Little John’s children will look like, is certainly far from “normal.” Yet, her status, self-regard and admitted smugness protect her from being thought of as “odd.” Likewise, Reverend Winemiller, obsessed with social protocol and appearances, protects himself from scrutiny by attacking Alma and appearing to care about his deranged wife. Alma, sadly, has no such armor and would distrust it even if she did.
The fact of the matter is that everyone in this play is eccentric in some way—from the obvious disorder of Mrs. Winemiller to the inability of Little John to tear himself from the ordered and mapped out trajectory which his mother has devised for his life. In its questioning of what eccentricity really is, this is a sure-handed and faithful performance of a lesser-known but nonetheless accomplished play in the Williams canon.