Story: It’s a calm, quiet Sunday in St. Louis in the 1930s, an ideal day to Bodey’s way of thinking for a picnic at Creve Coeur Lake Park, just a trolley car ride away from the small apartment she shares with her younger friend Dorothea.
The portly, amiable Bodey believes that the bright, attractive Dorothea will make an ideal mate for Bodey’s twin brother Buddy, even if Buddy smokes cigars, drinks too much and is considerably overweight. While Dorothea is quick to point out that she has no romantic interest in Bodey’s brother, she resigns herself to listening to her friend carry on about the possibilities.
While Bodey busies herself making plenty of fried chicken for the excursion, Dorothea reminds Bodey of the sweet romance young civics teacher Dorothea currently is having with T. Ralph Ellis, the principal and Dorothea’s colleague at Blewett High School. In fact, Dorothea hints that their dating could easily develop into something much more serious.
Bodey and Dorothea periodically are visited by an upstairs neighbor named Miss Gluck, a German immigrant who is distraught over the recent loss of her mother. Bodey graciously welcomes Miss Gluck with coffee, crullers and kindness to let her know that she has friends who care about her.
On this particular Sunday, while Bodey cooks and Dorothea awaits a phone call from Ellis, the ladies receive an unexpected visitor. Dorothea’s friend Helena, who teaches art history at Blewett, arrives in her Sunday finery looking distinctly out of place in the ladies’ middle-class neighborhood.
Seems that Helena has been talking with Dorothea about sharing a swanky apartment in the city’s Central West End when one becomes available. Dorothea envisions hosting parties there with her beau Ellis and thus is in favor of the idea, while Helena needs “Dottie” to cover half of the expenses.
Bodey and Helena are like oil and water from the start, sharing only their fondness for Dorothea. While Helena frequently drops references to her cousin who lives in “Lah-due,” Bodey does her best to make Helena’s visit an unpleasant one. Dorothea, too, isn’t anxious to go sign a contract on Helena’s newly found apartment lest she miss a call from Ellis. Helena, of course, knows Ellis, but curiously doesn’t share Dorothea’s high opinion of him
These women clearly have different ideas on how to spend this most lovely Sunday. Which, if any of them, will be happy with what might occur?
Highlights: Delightful performances by a quartet of actresses under the loving direction of Kari Ely make this seldom-performed little gem by Tennessee Williams a rewarding encounter at the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.
Other Info: Williams tried his hand at comedy with this one-act play written originally in 1976 and then updated by the playwright a couple of times before its Broadway premiere in 1979.
Fortunately, the story develops along more serious lines as it moves through its 90 minutes of dialogue, because Williams isn’t all that much of a comic writer, given the tedious pace of its first half. Supposedly, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur was the inspiration for the TV series, Golden Girls. That must have been some inspiration because it’s a quantum leap of a comparison.
What Williams always did best, though, was peel away layers of vulnerability and uncertainty to get at the heart of the human condition. That’s what happens in gradual fashion in this precious period piece and what makes it resonate.
The players succeed richly in bringing out the sharp contrasts between the four characters. Kelley Weber affectingly shows the big, selfless heart of Bodey, a woman in her 40s who is resigned to being single and childless and pins her domestic hopes instead on her dumpy, unseen brother who hopefully will marry and one day make her an aunt. She depicts Bodey’s nurturing instinct not only for Dorothea but for Miss Gluck as well.
Ellie Schwetye does a lot with the little offered in the small role of Miss Gluck, an hysterical woman who speaks mostly in German but who relies on the kindness of her considerate neighbor Bodey to navigate her through some rough emotional shoals. Schwetye furtively darts on and off the stage like a phantom in quest of coffee or a cookie or just some companionship.
As Helena, Julie Layton is decked out in elegant finery offered by costume designer Garth Dunbar, impeccably sporting a Sunday chapeau to complement her carefully arranged wardrobe, in stark contrast to Bodey’s frumpy garb, the harsh black favored by Miss Gluck or the casual attire of Dorothea.
Layton’s meticulous mannerisms and gestures handsomely complement her arch delivery of Helena’s crisp, carefully calculated dialogue, rendered all the more revealing as the prim teacher’s own loneliness surfaces in subtly discernible ways.
Dorothea’s hopes and genial good nature are fully embodied in Maggie Winninger’s ingratiating portrayal, which becomes ever more affecting as the story develops and Williams carefully lays the groundwork for crushing disappointment. Winninger’s expressions make these poignant moments all the more touching.
Ely’s direction makes shrewd and incisive use of the entire, make-shift stage in the upper room at the Grandel Theatre, which is filled with the clashing colors noted by Helena and furnished handsomely by scenic designer Ali Strelchun for Bodey’s living room and kitchen, capturing her chaotic but friendly personality. Strelchun adds clever touches, such as telephone poles in the background, as well.
David LaRose’s lighting underscores the set, Lana Dvorak’s props accentuate the era and Kareem Deanes’ sound design is charming, carefully emphasizing the era and locale with tunes such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Me and My Shadow and Under the Anheuser Busch.
The treasures subtly revealed in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur provide a fine bookend to the earthier, robust Night of the Iguana at this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.
Play: A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Group: Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Avenue
Dates: May 18 and 19 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. each day
Tickets: $25-$45; contact 531-1111 or www.metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak