Story: Monk opens his southern California seaside bar to another evening of revelry and reminiscences. He enjoys talking with the patrons of his modest but welcoming establishment, where regulars can feel at home and visitors can escape the outside world with their beverage of choice.
Occasionally, someone might want to stay after closing, and if Monk is sympathetic enough he may comply. Generally, though, he informs his clientele that there are “taverns that serve drinks and food and have lodgings, there are taverns that serve drinks and food, and there are taverns that serve drinks only.” His bar, he says, fits into the latter category.
Regulars include Leona, an exuberant beautician who’s been sharing her trailer for the last six months with a handsome, bigoted ne’er-do-well named Bill, a man who has worn out his welcome. Doc has been stripped of his medical license but continues to practice on the sly. Violet is a down-on-her-luck floozy who enjoys catering to young sailors who arrive in port but also benefits from the generosity of Steve, a short-order cook who keeps her fed with hot dogs and burgers.
On this particular night -- the anniversary of the death of Leona’s artistically talented and ‘different’ younger brother -- Monk’s is patronized as well by a pair of gay men, an older scriptwriter named Quentin and Bobby, a young man who has bicycled from Iowa across the country to see the Pacific Ocean.
This collection of lost souls contemplates life over a drink or three, some songs from the jukebox and the conversations of their fellow travelers to Monk’s sanctuary from the indifference of the world. They get by as best they can.
Highlights: First produced in 1972, Small Craft Warnings serves as the ‘marquee’ production in the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis in a handsomely staged presentation directed by Richard Corley. It features a cast of capable players interpreting the St. Louis playwright’s dialogue in one of his later works.
Other Info: The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis this year, guided by executive artistic director Carrie Houk, has expanded beyond the one weekend of performances in its inaugural season with a pair of plays, Small Craft Warnings and Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis?, which continue into subsequent weekends in May.
Scenic designer Dunsi Dai makes shrewd use of the stage at the .ZACK Incubator venue in Grand Center to depict the innards of Monk’s tavern, which features a mounted sailfish courtesy of props provider Annina Christensen above the well-stocked bar to accentuate the coastal environs. A jukebox in the back, a door to the restroom at stage right and an opening at stage left leading to Monk’s living quarters above the tavern, along with a couple of tables and a smattering of chairs, provide the ambiance.
Robin McGee dresses the players in costumes that match their characters, from the tacky polyester slacks favored by Bill to Steve’s grimy T-shirt to the sailor cap that epitomizes Leona’s lusty and adventurous spirit and the blazer and open shirt fancied by Quentin. Sound designer Michael Perkins adds some classical tunes preferred by Leona on the jukebox, while Michael Sullivan’s lighting showcases each of the players in their monologues of varying lengths.
On opening night, Corley’s pacing seemed initially off-kilter, stutter-starting sporadically until it caught its rhythm. With the exception of Peter Mayer’s Monk, the players each made their entrance through the bar’s ‘front door’ at the back of the set, which filled with fog later on to emphasize the nautical surroundings late at night.
Williams’ poetic language serves the soliloquies well, especially the haunting words of Leona and Quentin. Elizabeth Townsend brings out the humanity and collegial spirit of the former, impassioned in her pleading for others to recognize the achievements of her dearly beloved late brother while also urging Bobby, Violet et al to grab for the brass ring while they can.
As Quentin, John Bratkowski savors the words of the gay screenwriter like his favorite drink, eloquently explaining how his once passionate zeal for life gave way along the way to quiet resignation and reflection. It’s a haunting and melancholy image etched precisely by Bratkowski for effect.
Eric Dean White and Jared Sanz-Agero show the small worlds of the loutish, self-centered Bill and the sympathetic, lackluster Steve, respectively. White conveys the emptiness of the opportunistic, venal huckster while Sanz-Agero brings across Steve’s humble, halting efforts to help Violet survive another day.
Magan Wiles skillfully depicts Violet’s desperate pleas, with sunken cheeks and haunted eyes as well as the looks of desperation and absent-minded physical pleasure which she assumes is her only asset, gravitating from man to man as the whim drives her. Spencer Milford’s open face and friendly expression serve well to shape the Midwestern geniality of Bobby, and Richard Schicker has a brief role as the cop who patrols the pier district.
In the world-weary department, Peter Mayer brings out the sensibilities of the proprietor Monk, who’s survived a couple of heart attacks and is content to take life one day at a time. Jeremy Lawrence relishes the bon mots and pithy asides offered by the broken-down Doc, a role played by Williams himself in the original off-Broadway production.
Small Craft Warnings is more of a moment in time and a series of monologues rather than a conventional play with a plot woven throughout its one act and 90 minutes. Its strength lies in Williams’ elegantly shaped language and his reflections on the human condition.
Play: Small Craft Warnings
Company: Tennessee Williams Festival
Venue: .ZACK Incubator, 3224 Locust Street
Dates: May 11, 12, 13, 14
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ride Hamilton and ProPhotoSTL.com