Even the most knowledgeable theatre fan would be forgiven for not being familiar with Tennessee Williams’ lesser-known play The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Unlike other works from the legendary playwright’s canon (A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, for example) this play had a brief run on Broadway under its original title, Summer and Smoke in 1948. A complete re-working resulted in a name change, but its second try on Broadway in 1976 didn’t fare much better, also closing after a short run.
So the decision to mount a production by The Rude Mechanicals, an area theater company, currently performing the play at DC’s Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint, seems particularly brave and somewhat curious. Why take on material that has a less than distinguished history?
The happy answer is that this company has found a way into the material, relaying a story that is relatable and emotionally resonant.
Set in a small town in pre-World War One Mississippi, our title character is Alma Winemiller, a singer and voice teacher who performs at virtually every function in this little burg of 5,000 souls. Her father is the Priest at the Episcopal Church, where attendance is on the decline. Her mother is obviously suffering from some sort of mental illness, a source of frustration and embarrassment, it seems.
Alma has long pined for her neighbor, John Buchanan, a successful man of medicine and quite the eligible bachelor, if it weren’t for his overbearing Mother and his apparent devotion to her whims. Mom doesn’t approve of Alma—she’s not “good enough” for her son. The tension is as thick as the gulf air.
Will these would-be lovers ever come together? How does one communicate feelings in such a stuffy environment, where direct, declarative sentences are rarely uttered? It’s tricky, and it’s just part of the fun of watching events unfold.
As Alma, Adele Robey deftly handles a multi-layered character who is not immediately likeable. Robey helps us see, in subtle ways, that her character is a tragic figure hiding beneath her Southern manners and, yes, her rather eccentric ways. How the actress manages to illicit empathy for Alma is an example of patience, of trusting the material to reveal the facets in good time.
Deryl Davis plays John Buchanan without gimmicks or fanfare. Buchanan isn’t quite as pitiable as Alma, but he too finds himself putting his own desires on the lower shelf in order to please his Mother, played with just the right tone by Nancy Blum. Louis Pangaro (Reverend Winemiller); Pamela Friedman (Mrs. Winemiller);Eli Omega (Vernon/Traveling Salesman);Jennifer Berry (Rosemary);Joyce Wright (Mrs. Bassett), and Michael McCarthy (Roger) round out the cast and also contribute fine performances.
A scene in the second act, when Alma and John find themselves in a rented room, is heartbreaking; learning how little our characters are willing to settle for is devastating, yet played with understatement and nuance by Robey and Davis.
It’s hard to say why this play’s history hasn’t been more illustrious. Perhaps it simply paled in comparison to Williams’ other work (and it does, that much is true).
But thanks to a small company of local actors and director Ed Starr, audiences can get to know a character with whom Tennessee Williams had a special connection. He once said, “I am Alma.” That declaration alone ought to be reason enough to explore this less celebrated work.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale has one more performance tonight, May 24, 2014 at 8 pm, at The Rude Mechanicals performing at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint-916 G Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.