SARASOTA – Some of the most intense and provocative local theater in recent years has occurred in single-dose form via the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training's Late Night Series, and Monday night's performance of Tennessee Williams's powerful late-career The Two Character Play may well have been the series' best offering to date.
This later work by the master American playwright who brought us such legendary works as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was poorly received by audiences and critics when it was released 40 years ago. However, the play, which was without question ahead of its time and something of a departure from Williams' more accessible work, received a renaissance in more recent years when it was much more favorably reviewed.
Brother/sister stage acting duo Felice and Clare are on a ramshackle tour that is coasting on fumes into its final bush league stop. Deserted by their troupe and tour manager, the actors stage a production of Felice's The Two Character Play, in a play within a play device that is so intensely reflecting the actors' own disintegrating mental states that it's very easy to lose yourself in the competing illusions.
It isn't a plot-driven story and it isn't a character-driven one either. It's an emotional roller coaster fueled by Williams' familiar themes of mental instability, confinement and tyrannic repression. Actors playing actors, slipping in and out of characters not at all unlike themselves, improvising lines and even plot until all matters of character differentiation, illusion and overlap are lost in a deliciously-manic crescendo.
This is not an easy play to pull off, and it is not one in which the investment of time, effort and indeed emotional intensity would seem suited to a one-performance production, but neither was last year's brilliant rendering of David Mamet's Oleanna, and that is precisely what makes this local theater season Kick-off Classic of sorts my favorite Monday night of the year.
Kim Stephenson's quixotic turn as Clare is nothing short of haunting. She appears hollowed out and at times downright unhinged as the traumatized recluse in the "play" and eventually devolves into something indistinguishable as the "actress."
Kevin Barber nails Felice, her brother, who conveys a more controlled collapse that bounces rhythmically with Clare's mania. In Williams' stage directions, Felice is to have "a quality of youth without being young," which perfectly summarizes Barber's embodiment of the character.
The Performance was emotionally arresting and thoroughly enjoyable. Bravo to Barber and Stephenson, as well as fellow student Mark Comer who directed the performance, which bodes well for the Conservatory's upcoming season, which opens with Mamet's The Water Engine on November 4.
Dennis Maley is TBT's editor and featured political columnist. His regular column appears every Thursday and Sunday. He occasionally reviews local theater purely out of love for the art form and claims no particular expertise beyond his considerable experience as an audience member. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.