Jenn’s Take: “A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams” is an ethereal gem of a play

 

A go-to hypothetical question, especially among the word-nerd set, is: “What three writers, alive or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?”

The play “A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams,” by U-M student Maxim Vinogradov – produced by Ferndale’s Slipstream Theatre Initiative, but now on stage (as a guest production) at Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova – makes a pretty solid case for including the troubled playwright of “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the table.

Why? Because between the stream of not-yet-A-list stars (Paul Newman, Marlon Brando) and super-famous actresses (Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn) that flocked to Williams, hoping to be cast in his plays and films, and the more established artists (Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Greta Garbo) that composed his entourage, Williams became a sun at the center of a glitzy galaxy of his own making.

But this ethereal gem of a play is unlike any biographical portrait you’ve seen before. At the start, Williams (Bailey Boudreau) appears to be awkwardly out of his element, fumbling through a literal “night of stars” presentation at a planetarium; and he’s helped only slightly by a feisty assistant, “Little Edwina” (Jan Cartwright), who positions herself next to an old-school overhead projector in the front row. Soon, however, the machine seems to cause people and memories from Williams’ past to appear; and while Williams is desperate to recall and re-enact happy moments, the most painful, damning ones will not be squelched.

Indeed, these internal wounds burn and haunt Williams, fueling his alcoholism. So even when he’s savoring time with his beloved, freewheeling sister Rose (Sarah B. Stevens) or his mischievous, witty peer Truman Capote (Ryan Ernst played the role at the performance I saw, but Richard Payton will resume the role for the rest of the play’s run), we know these fleeting moments are but a prelude to agony.

Vinogradov’s bracingly original script won U-M’s prestigious Hopwood Award for Drama, and it’s no wonder. This is not easy material to harness and calibrate “just so,” especially given the larger-than-life people involved; but the young playwright miraculously manages – with help from Slipstream’s talented team, and director Mandy Logsdon’s vision – to make an evening spent with Williams feel witty and magical and heart-wrenching.

This is atmospherically achieved by way of Ernst’s deft technical direction. The spare, dreamily romantic set consists of little more than a few clear plastic stools and a unit of square storage blocks in neutral colors (bordered with fairy lights), backdropped at center stage by a sheer curtain, illuminated by dangling string lights. Ernst’s soft lighting add to the nostalgic, gorgeous pull of the production, and Boudreau’s costume design captures the recognizable essence of these famous stars while employing props (transparent plastic purses and cigarettes, for instance) that are visually in keeping with the set.

Slipstream’s cast, meanwhile, appears to be having a ball while embodying these Hollywood icons. Luna Alexander’s takes on Liz Taylor and Bette Davis offer a fun, brief respite from the play’s heavier moments; Grace Joliffe plays Garbo as a world-wise fairy godmother of reason in Williams’ tumultuous life; and Ernst’s Capote was spot-on as the witty, brilliant devil perched on Williams’ shoulder. As Rose – the convention-flaunting sister who’s eventually lobotomized, courtesy of the siblings’ morally rigid mother – Stevens masterfully breathes life into a feisty, strong-willed woman we come to love, too, before her spirit is tragically snuffed out.

But the show’s nucleus, of course, is Boudreau, who’s on stage for “Night”’s full 90 minute run time, and who must live through Williams’ broad range of experiences and emotion. For in addition to carrying around the pain of not saving his sister, Williams also struggled with the crushing guilt he felt about betraying Frankie (Steve Xander Carson), the love of his life who died of cancer, and confronted his domineering mother. Boudreau makes these seismic shifts with impressive grace, seamlessly taking us from lighter, funnier moments in his career to the most searing, soul-bearing parts of his personal history. And when he’s confronted by the idea that it was him, not Frankie (as Williams had claimed), who was dazzled by and addicted to the stars around him, and that he’s more like his mother than he cares to admit, it registers on Boudreau’s face with painful accuracy. For when we recognize in ourselves that which we claim to detest, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

“Night,” however, is not. Vinogradov’s haunting, trippy, compact approach storytelling – no small feat – somehow makes the play all the more impactful, and tonally balanced. So catch this “Night of Stars” while you still can. The show had its world premiere at Slipsteam’s theater in Ferndale in 2017, and though I missed it then, I’m so, so glad I got the chance to see it now.

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