Never start off your career with a masterpiece.
Where do you go from there?
Known in some circles as the Joseph Kesselring Curse (as in Arsenic and Old Lace which was then followed by ten flops), Tennessee Williams compounded on this by starting his career with a slew of masterpieces – The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
While his later efforts occasionally had a glimmer of his earlier successes, none ever reached the heights achieved by his initial output.
During the 1940s and ‘50s, Williams could do no wrong; alas, from the 1960s on, it seemed he could do little right.
Here you find his most neglected works – The Mutilated (1965), In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969), Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis? (1969), Out Cry (1973), The Red Devil Battery Sign (1976), Vieux Carré (1978), Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980) all flops at both the box office and with the critics.
Stuck in the midst of them was a piece that Williams began as a short story, turned into a one act, and finally gave the form of the full length The Seven Descents of Myrtle. Said work, which Williams later re-titled Kingdom of Earth, is now having a rare staging as a guest production at the Odyssey in West Los Angeles.
It was taken to Broadway by David Merrick in March of 1968 staring Brian Bedford, Harry Guardino and Estelle Parsons. Parsons would earn a Tony nomination for best actress, but the play would close after a lackluster 29 performances.
It would be taken to the silver screen in 1970 with Sidney Lumet directing Lynn Redgrave, James Coburn and Robert Hooks in a screenplay by Gore Vidal now entitled Last of the Mobile Hot Shots. It would fare no better on screen than it had on stage.
There is a good deal which is problematic with the play, foremost being Williams’ self-plagiarizing of Blanche and Stanley from Streetcar for use again, and perhaps his employing the play to wrestle with demons of his real life.
The early sixties were a dark period for Williams where his depression and alcohol use led to his placement in various treatment centers where the power of attorney was held by his mother and younger brother Dakin. How much this contributed to the play is anyone’s guess.
The play is essentially a gumbo of Williams’ personal demons, his earlier works and his later fascination with imagery drawn from both Judeo-Christian and Greek myths.
The play opens on a raging storm that threatens to flood the Ravenstock manor with water from the rising delta, and here we are introduced to Chicken (Brian Burke) a swarthy brute of a man disdainful of both cries from fleeing neighbors warning of plans to dynamite a nearby levee and the storm itself.
His plans are to ride out the storm atop the roof – a practice from an earlier flooding that earned him his nickname. But his intentions are thrown askew by the unexpected arrival of his half brother Lot (Daniel Felix de Weldon) and his bride of two days Myrtle (Susan Priver). The notion of Lot’s wife is just one of many Biblical references left dangling throughout the work.
The newlyweds are an odd pair.
Lot is a near invalid, suffering from some undefined lung ailment which is slowly killing him.
In the character’s homosexuality and pronounced mother fixation some have seen in Lot, a vicious self-caricature of Williams himself.
Myrtle, his bride in an, as yet, unconsummated union is a brassy show girl down on her luck, willing to play wife or mother for her new husband.
The brothers’ reunion is less than happy, and the reason why, we soon discover, is a contract that Chicken holds deeding the house to him upon Lot’s death.
Lot, who spends the majority of the play upstairs either dying in a grand fashion or dressing in his late mother’s wardrobe; quickly divulges his reason for marrying Myrtle. It is his hope of using her to deny Chicken ever taking possession and soling the house which Lot obsessively sees as a shrine to his mother.
David Merrick trimmed 45 minutes from the original play, which critic Clive Barnes believed removed three of Myrtle’s descents from the upstairs bedroom, and her dying husband, down into Chicken’s realm.
But even with the four remaining, the play manages to touch base with Dante’s seven circles of Hell.
The First Circle is that of Limbo, which is where Myrtle finds herself between a lusting beast and a sexual wraith.
The Second Circle is Lust, described by Dante as souls who are buffeted by a terrible storm.
The Third Circle is Gluttony reflected here in a pan of potatoes fried in bacon fat and the stewing lust that abounds.
The Fourth Circle is Greed of which there is no lack on stage.
The Fifth Circle is Wrath, which seethes within both brothers, and which Dante portrays as stinking swamp water, destined to be that entity which inevitably drowns the house.
The Sixth Circle is heresy and this may be found in Chicken’s speech –
Man’s got to be hard, too. Life, rock. Man, rock. Both rock. Because if they both ain’t rock, one breaks. The soft one breaks. And life is never the soft one.
Not only does it carry echoes of the Book of Genesis, but it serves as the dankest of heresies in the themes throughout Williams’ work of the strong devouring the weak.
And finally the Seventh Circle – Violence represented in the explosion destroying the last levee.
Now the deluge comes.
Williams’ play is far from a success, so it’s all the more surprising that this production manages to be.
That success derives from strong performances in the cast and Michael Arabian’s taut, “damn the torpedoes” direction.
In Kingdom of Earth, he unabashedly bludgeons the audience with all the tricks he can muster – the graphic design of Doug Haverty, a sound scheme by John Nobori that skirts intrusiveness, Bill E. Kickbush’s light design and a staggeringly beautiful set by John Iacovelli.
At times Arabian plays his cards heavy handedly, without a doubt, but in doing so serves to deflect the play’s more glaring defects.
As the sad, desperate Myrtle, Priver finds the perfect path through the pathos of the piece while adroitly avoiding the pitfalls of repetitions which Williams burdened the character with.
As Lot, de Weldon’s performance is worth the price of admission in and of itself; his is a talent we need to see more of on L.A. stages.
Burke brings a strong presence to the character of Chicken, but is undercut by editing choices, some understandable, others not.
Gone is the scene where he drowns a house cat intimating Myrtle is next.
Gone is Chicken’s menacing mocking of Myrtle.
The accumulated effect of these cuts has been to lessen the psychopathic viciousness of Chicken, perhaps in an effort to make him more palatable to the audience though I can’t see why that would be desirable. And the results served primarily to unbalance the drama’s trinity.
In the final analysis the work feels like the playwright has played a literary version of 52 card pickup, flinging the various suits haphazardly into the air and down into a jumble of the comic and the carnal, the familiar and the bizarrerie.
It is to the credit of the producers Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger, director Michael Arabian and their cast that they were able to gather all the disarranged cards back up; that there’s a number missing from the deck can be faulted to Williams.
(NOTE: Pictured in Featured Image…Brian Burke and Susan Priver, Photo by Michael Lamont)
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Dance On Productions in association with Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger presents Kingdom of Earth as an Odyssey Ensemble guest production playing weekends now through August 14:
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90025
For tickets and additional information see:
(310) 477-2055 ext. 2 or OdysseyTheatre.com