The Saints Go Marching In

"The world is a big hospital, and I am a nurse in it": Leanna Hieber as Isabel Haverstick and Don Eitel as Ralph Bates
John Autey

The paramount goal of a comedy, at least as illustrated by the films of Rob Schneider, needn't be to make us laugh. Dante's Divine Comedy isn't so named for, say, the fart joke that closes Canto 21 of the Inferno, but because it's written in the vernacular and ends in Paradise, where the happiest of happy endings happen for all but the gal stuck listening to Saint Cunibert the Hermit bitch about his bunions. Read Dante's comedy backward and you have a different beast altogether, not to mention a hidden message that I'm told exactly duplicates the backward-masking diabolism found on "Stairway to Heaven."

Tennessee Williams's Period of Adjustment, billed by the playwright as a "serious comedy," is often funny, but take away the cheerily romantic ending and its claims to comedy are tenuous. There's something about its tender resolution, in fact, that feels tacked on with Laffy Taffy, as if Williams--long vexed by Hollywood's sometimes-sugarcoated adaptations of his plays-- grudgingly opted to do the sugarcoating himself. It isn't a great play. A great play, I'd argue, doesn't give quarter to a line such as "The world is a big hospital, and I am a nurse in it, George," especially when said line is followed by a close variation that emphasizes the author's satisfaction with it. That said, Williams's 1960 offering has certainly been underrated and underproduced, as is persuasively argued by this mostly on-target season opener from Starting Gate Productions.

At the beginning, we find gentle war hero Ralph Bates (Don Eitel) watching TV alone in his home in High Point, Tennessee. It's Christmas Eve, and Ralph, a good old boy with a genuine hold on goodness, seems resignedly aware of the pathos of his celebration. The Starting Gate design corps has created Ralph's modest suburban home with eyes for detail, though it's odd to find him swigging bottles of Rolling Rock, not to the best of my knowledge the beer of choice for early-'60s bubbas. One can't help but wonder if his glum mood isn't partly related to an unheard-of shortage of Budweiser six-packs.

But Ralph's problems run deeper than that. He married for money, hitching up with "homely" heiress Dorothea (Jenner Snell in a fragile performance that light-footedly steals the second act). The inheritance Ralph hoped for, however, has been slow in coming, and now the wife has split, with toddler son in tow. In similar marital straits are George (Stephen Frethem) and Isabel (Leanna Hieber), fresh from a disastrous honeymoon. George, Ralph's WWII and Korean War buddy, suffers from a severe case of the shakes. He met Isabel when she was his nurse. She had Florence Nightingale-like ambitions of healing the world one soldier at a time; he had a hard-on.

Eitel leads the cast with a funny and endearing performance rich with disappointment-inured sighs and I-just-dodged-a-bullet inhalations. And in a turn--more effectively comic than serious--Hieber delights with the amusingly prim locution she gives Isabel, turning the phrase "little blue zippuh bag" into a recurring punch line. Not every moment of this Brian Goranson-directed effort, however, is so blessed. On opening night, the Act 2 confrontation between Ralph and his insufferable in-laws felt disconnected, as if the actors were running their lines in separate greenrooms. And though Frethem's performance improves as his character softens, at times George's outward traits--his trembling, his drunkenness, his defensive machismo--seem overcooked.

If Period of Adjustment was a departure from the playwright's often dark palette, it was a shift from black to charcoal. Its world is a chilly place. Everything in the play is either shaking or freezing: The women are accused of "frigidity," the Memphis air is unusually cold, George needs tranquilizers to still his trembling hand, and the town of High Point itself--built over a cavern that it is slowly sinking into--shakes and descends along with its residents. Yet there are rosy kisses here as well. Perhaps one of these kisses will even inspire an earthly tremor unburdened by the weight of ominous symbolism.


Saint Thomas More, we learn in Lynn Musgrave's director's notes to Theatre in the Round's A Man for All Seasons, was "sublimely Christian in the most generous, tolerant, and forgiving sense of the word." Moreover, he was a champion of "man's divine right to due process and freedom of thought." This would have been news to the Lutherans whom More vigilantly hunted and attacked during the 1520s and '30s. The lawyer, statesman, martyr, and author of Utopia was a great fan of burning, both of heretical books and heretical people. I reckon we should labor to see these unpleasant actions in light of the inflamed schism of More's time, but we needn't make concessions to the point of blind hagiography.

Robert Bolt's 1960 play, which became an Oscar-winning movie in 1966, does touch on More's distaste for errant thinkers, though not in a way that shows the unseemly ramifications of his intolerant orthodoxy. From 1529 until 1532, More was lord chancellor under Henry VIII. Sincerely pious, he opposed all threats to the Church, including the Act of Supremacy, which spat on papal authority by making Henry leader of the Church of England. For this he was beheaded for treason.

It was a heroic death, but a karmic one, too. To his credit, Jim Pounds adds a hint of hubris and causticity to More's dominant spirit of witty, paternal saintliness. Likewise, Mark Armstrong lends vulnerability to his opportunistic Richard Rich, whose fortunes throughout the play progress in an inversion of More's. Similarly effective, if perhaps less layered, is Scott Keely's stylishly sinister exhumation of Thomas Cromwell.

In the end, however, the smooth production can't transcend Bolt's shallow script. From the start, the play establishes the hero's position as a spotless man of conscience adrift in a sea of compromised baddies, and a not particularly dramatic battle ensues. Act 2 is an especially tiresome repetition of this storybook theme. The staging, colored in pleasant but soporific golden browns, soon resembles the script's stifling blandness. It begins to evoke some anemic medieval penalty, like being forced to wear a mohair shirt of an unflattering hue, or being flagellated for tedious hours with feather dusters.

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