The LIzard King

Tripping with Tennessee Williams's Fallen Priest in 'Night of the Iguana'

For the rugged globetrotter who's neither tied to itineraries nor traveling with a comely teenage girl, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon is the ideal tour guide. The leading man in Tennessee Williams's 1961 play The Night of the Iguana, currently receiving an excellent revival at the Guthrie Theater, is a defrocked Episcopalian priest who has spent the past 10 years working as a tour guide. In this capacity, Shannon (Armand Schultz) has sought to expose his charges to "the underworlds" not pictured in travel brochures. "If they had hearts to be touched, feelings to feel with," he says in an impassioned defense of his unconventional methods, "I gave them a priceless chance to feel and be touched."

That occupational mission could also be applied to many of Williams's works, and presumably the association was intended. "I draw all my characters from myself," the playwright once said, and Shannon is another of his tortured, semi-autobiographical creations, with problems similar to those of his more famous dramaturgical brethren. Like Blanche DuBois, he's fragile and lonely, and has a career-busting weakness for hanky-panky with minors. And like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he's desperate for something--anything--to believe in. The guilt-ridden ex-priest has settled on a kind of pantheism, but he's still haunted by the "cruel, senile delinquent" God of his upbringing, a theological struggle that's boldly underlined in this staging by a dazzling storm scene.

The play takes place in 1940 at the scenic but seedy Costa Verde Hotel on the west coast of Mexico, and is drawn from Williams's own experience there during the same summer. Shannon is on the verge of a nervous breakdown (not his first), and--working off the plan as usual--has taken his gaggle of Texas schoolteachers to the out-of-the-way hotel in hopes of restoring his sanity in the company of the innkeepers Fred and Maxine. On arrival, however, he finds that Fred is dead, and soon realizes that Maxine (Patricia Hodges) wants Shannon to fill her husband's lately vacated zapatos. As the often scantily clad Maxine, Hodges conjures both neediness and the "rapacious lustiness" that the playwright called for. Also lodging in the hotel is Hannah (Kate Forbes), an itinerant portrait artist who travels with her nonagenarian father, a minor romantic poet who has been laboring for 20 years to produce his final opus.

Very casual Sunday: Defrocked priest Shannon (Armand Schultz) preaches to the faithless
T. Charles Erickson
Very casual Sunday: Defrocked priest Shannon (Armand Schultz) preaches to the faithless

The Night of the Iguana is generally considered to be Williams's last major work, and is ranked by some with his earlier classics. The latter appraisal may be a touch generous, but the Guthrie's melodrama-resistant staging has done a nice job of softening the play's ostentatious symbolism and amateur psychoanalysis. Nearly three hours long but never sluggish, the show has a lazy pace and structure that nicely mirrors its coastal locale--there's a dramatic undulation here more than the classic arc.

The wave-like feel is largely due to Shannon's mood swings, from the tempestuous to the pacific. Schultz delivers a hangdog performance that recalls (and I invite you to greet the following comparison with an open mind) Kevin Costner--not the much-maligned dope of Message in a Bottle or Night Shift, but rather the sexy everyman philosopher of Bull Durham. At the play's heart is Shannon and Hannah's late-night dialogue, a romantic but nonsexual encounter in which both reveal themselves with the frankness one typically reserves for therapy. (Shannon spends much of the scene tied up in a hammock while Hannah parses his character, an amusing caricature of psychoanalysis.)

In a touching highlight of the long chat, Hannah recounts the two quasi-sexual experiences of her 40-odd years. One takes place on the beach and involves masturbation--perhaps a cousin of a scene from Joyce's Ulysses. I won't spoil the story, but will say that while it's in keeping with Williams's taste for shock, it's also poignant in its deep loneliness, or as Hannah says, "a love experience."

 
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