Tennessee Williams was drawn to the edges of America. Among his favorite places in the world were the port city of New Orleans, on the banks of the Mississippi; Key West, the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico; and Provincetown, the land’s end on the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean.
Williams’s work covered the waterfront, too. When he died in 1983 at 71, he left six decades’ worth of stage plays, screenplays, short stories, memoirs, poetry, and essays.
Since 2006, the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival has paid homage to that broad and diverse body of work, and to Williams himself. This year’s festival, which kicks off on Sept. 22, will continue that tradition — and, according to festival curator David Kaplan, this year’s lineup of performances is particularly noteworthy.
That’s because, for many years, the festival has included works by Williams as well as by other artists who complemented Williams’s style, perspective, or sensibility. But all six of the plays this year were written by Williams himself. Kaplan says this will offer viewers a chance to experience the full breadth of Williams’s talents: “We wanted to show the range of material but also the continuity of subject matter and the diverse ways of delivering that subject matter,” he says.
This is the first time the festival has produced an all-Williams program since 2006. The wait wasn’t due to any shortage of plays in Williams’s catalogue: he wrote over 90 of them, so there are plenty to go around. Some are better than others, and several that debuted to critical acclaim haven’t aged well. Williams’s later, more experimental plays are seldom, if ever, produced.
One such work is This Is the Peaceable Kingdom or Good Luck God, which Kaplan describes as “a play that no one else would dare to do.” It was published in 1981, two years before Williams’s death, and its premise sprang from an actual event: a strike at a nursing home in Queens, N.Y. In the play, the strike leads family members to care for their elderly relatives at the home themselves. Drama ensues.
To call Peaceable Kingdom a departure from Williams’s better-known “Southern belle” period would be an understatement. The play’s self-consciously experimental style and content — replete with racial and ethnic tension — would have been challenging for Reagan-era audiences.
Peaceable Kingdom will be presented by New Orleans-based artist Pandora Gastelum (who Kaplan describes as a “mad genius”) and the Mudlark Public Theater using an all-puppet cast, including a mix of marionettes and Chinese shadow puppets. (If you’re going to lean into the experimental, why not lean way in?)
Also on the bill this year is One Arm, the story of (spoiler alert) a one-armed hustler accused of murder. Williams first wrote it as a short story in 1942, then rewrote it as a screenplay in 1967. Despite the author’s best efforts, a movie was never made. Moisés Kaufman of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project then adapted the screenplay for the stage in 2004. And yet another version created by Cape Town, South Africa-based theater company Abrahamse and Meyer Productions is the one that this year’s audiences will experience.
Kaplan says he’s also excited about The Magic Tower, the first play wholly written by Williams ever to be presented onstage. The one-act play from 1936 opens with a retired showgirl admiring the body of her starving-artist lover — while he utterly ignores her. As Kaplan points out, it’s a motif that Williams will revisit in his better-known work: “We see the same setup in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the 1950s.” The production at this year’s festival will be performed by a Greek Cypriot ensemble directed by Marios Mettis.
Kaplan has a few more recommendations for theater fans attending this year’s festival:
Don’t miss A Streetcar Named Desire: If you think you’ve already seen Streetcar, think again. In this production — also by Abrahamse and Meyer — the play has been reimagined and set in an asylum, as Blanche recounts her fateful visit to her sister, Stella, and brutish brother-in-law, Stanley, in New Orleans 10 years earlier.
See The Brass Menagerie: If you’ve ever wondered what Blanche DuBois would sound like on Broadway, you’re in luck: singer Amy Jo Jackson’s review channels Williams’s heroines in a musical mash-up incorporating show-tune standards.
Sample, sample, sample: “Most of the plays in this year’s festival are short, clocking in at just over an hour,” says Kaplan. “So, take advantage of the opportunity to see some of Williams’s rarely performed pieces — who knows when you’ll get another chance?”
Enjoy Provincetown: “The schedule is set up so that you can walk between the venues,” says Kaplan. “And it’s beautiful here this month. Go to the beach! Watch the sunset!” If Williams were still around, he’d be right there with you.
The 2022 Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival runs from September 22 to 25. A full schedule of events, including links to festival passes and single tickets, is at TWPtown.org, or call 866-789-TENN.