Tennessee Williams apparently had a thing for nightingales. In 1938 he wrote a play about a true incident in Philadelphia wherein prisoners who had gone on a hunger strike were confined in a steamy cage until many of them died. This grim play was called “Not About Nightingales.”
A decade later he wrote a beautiful, sensitive story about a spinster in Mississippi who pined for a young man who didn’t return her love. That play was “Summer and Smoke,” and its fragile, emotional heroine captured audiences by singing, much as a nightingale sings when attempting to attract a mate.
In 1964 Williams revised “Summer and Smoke” and acknowledged the nightingale connection when he retitled the new play “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.”
It is that remarkable play that is currently being performed by the fine actors of the Pacific Resident Theater.
The portrait of a passionate woman with awkward mannerisms brings to mind other of Williams’ classic females. Like Blanche DuBois in “Streetcar Named Desire” or Laura Wingfield in “Glass Menagerie,” Alma Winemiller is one of a kind. More outgoing than these other women, she strives to make a place for herself in her southern community by giving voice lessons and singing at every public event and private party, even though the activity inevitably leaves her nervous and twitching.
She pours her emotions into each song, augmenting them with extravagant gestures that prompt the community to see her as “not normal.” Further, she deals with her aloneness by convening a “culture club” to which a group of societal misfits come each week to share their literary works and discuss “intellectual” topics.
These activities do not earn her the love she craves, or even the respect of her fellows. Instead, they gossip about her and dismiss her as an eccentric.
As does her father, the local parson, who continually berates her for “being carried away” by her emotions and flamboyant gestures. He, however, has another “cross to bear”: his wife who is distressingly demented.
Nevertheless, Alma finds love in the person of the man who lives across the street.
John does not return her love, but he is intrigued by her and offers a guarded friendship. He has been studying at Johns Hopkins and is now a doctor, and the pride and joy of his overbearing mother, who is suffocatingly attentive to him. She consistently drags him away whenever he meets with Alma, and in one horrendously manipulative scene she describes the well-born, moneyed woman she envisions him marrying. All while lovingly massaging his feet.
John’s mother, Mrs. Buchanan, calls Alma “The Nightingale of the Delta,” but she doesn’t mean it as a compliment. And she reminds John that “people who have positions have to hold on to them.”
All this takes place in Mississippi a year before the First World War in a small southern town called Glorious Hill. The set, designed by Kis Knekt, is adequately laid out, with minimal accoutrements to reflect change from one location to another. (For example, a single wooden bench identifies the town’s Public Square.) And Christine Cover Ferro has designed lavish costumes that the cast changes into while the stage is dark between scenes and a chorus sings hymns and what sounds almost like Gregorian chants in the background.
The cast, well directed by Dana Jackson, includes Ginna Carter as Alma; Andrew Dits as John; Brad Greenquist and Mary Jo Deschanel as the Reverend and Mrs. Winemiller; and Rita Obermeyer as Mrs. Buchanan.
In addition, Paul Anderson, Joan Chodorow, Choppy Guilotte, and Amy Huntington appear as the quirky cultural club members, and Derek Chariton is the salesman.
Of all his characters, Tennessee Williams identified most with and declared himself closest to Alma Winemiller. Even though she had appeared earlier in “Summer and Smoke,” he said he preferred “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” because “It is less conventional and melodramatic.”
You be the judge of that.
“The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through August 14 at the Pacific Resident Theater, 703 Venice Blvd., in Venice. For tickets, call (310) 822-8392 or go to www.pacificresidenttheatre.com.