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Man on a Hot Tin Roof

When Tennessee Williams Came to Town



By Albert Williams

Scenic designer Rick Paul still recalls the first words Tennessee Williams ever said to him. It was the summer of 1971, and Paul was building the set he'd designed for Out Cry, the 60-year-old writer's newest play. "We'd had phone conversations, but we'd never seen each other before. I was thrilled to finally be meeting him. He came up to me, looked me over--I'd been working all day and I was exhausted--and he said, 'Oooh, baby, I think you need a transfusion.' I never knew quite what he meant. It was such a vampiric comment."

At the time, Paul was the resident designer at the Ivanhoe Theater, at Wellington and Clark--then an in-the-round playhouse under the leadership of producer-director George Keathley. Before Keathley's arrival in the late 60s, the Ivanhoe trafficked in light dinner-theater fare (there was a medieval-themed family restaurant adjacent to the auditorium). But Keathley made the venue a hub of serious and exciting drama, importing hot young newcomers such as Christopher Walken and Bruce Boxleitner and established stars such as Jessica Tandy, Luther Adler, and Piper Laurie. The plays of Tennessee Williams were a Keathley specialty--he'd directed the 1956 world premiere of Sweet Bird of Youth in Coral Gables, Florida, and at the Ivanhoe he presented Rita Moreno in The Rose Tattoo, Lois Nettleton in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sandy Dennis in A Streetcar Named Desire. But it was something of a coup when Keathley brought in Williams himself for the Ivanhoe's world premiere of Out Cry. It announced to the world that Chicago's fledgling off-Loop theater scene was becoming a force to be reckoned with.

"Back then it was expected that if you graduated from the Goodman you left town. There was nothing here," says Paul, a Wilmette resident and Goodman School of Drama alumnus. In his early 20s, he'd snagged a job as a prop runner at the Ivanhoe, carrying props up and down the aisle during scene changes. Sometimes he found himself running up and down Wellington Avenue as well, working shows at both the Ivanhoe and the Chicago City Players, an experimental troupe down the block that specialized in plays by Sam Shepard, Megan Terry, and Jean-Claude van Itallie. When Keathley offered the post of resident designer to Paul, one of the things that convinced him to accept the job was the promise of designing Out Cry.

"I kept hearing that we were going to do this play," Paul recalls. "It was in the works for months, but it never got listed on the agenda. Williams was doing rewrites to get it ready for production--it had only been done once before, under a different title in a workshop in London in 1967. I knew I could not turn down a Tennessee Williams premiere. So I did show after show, waiting. Finally it came through."

Paul's duties occasionally involved chauffeuring Williams to and from his lodgings at the Ambassador East. "As I got to know him, you could tell he was wounded, very fragile. You couldn't compliment him--he would recoil if you did, physically shrink. He was so insecure, he couldn't accept that people liked him. But he was very funny. I asked him once what he felt happened to Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire after she got out of the mental hospital she goes to at the end of the play. He said, 'Oh, she was in there for three months, then she went back home and opened a hat shop.' Then he cackled. You could see he'd decided that one little breakdown wasn't going to hold Blanche back--or him either."

The decade leading up to Out Cry had been a difficult one for Williams, starting with his breakup from longtime lover Frank Merlo in 1961 (the same year as his last bona fide success, The Night of the Iguana), proceeding through a series of professional failures, and climaxing with his 1969 institutionalization for drug dependency. Out Cry was a thinly disguised portrait of Williams's emotional problems--a Pirandellian fantasy about a sister-brother acting team stranded in a decrepit theater and forced to perform a two-character play after their colleagues abandon them. The set, described by Williams in the stage directions for The Two-Character Play (as Out Cry was retitled in its final form), was meant to suggest "the disordered images of a mind approaching collapse."

"The core of the show was the play-within-the-play," says Paul. "So we had a theater in the round that had a proscenium stage on it--a contradiction in terms. You're seeing the set of the play-within-the-play plus the backstage area surrounding it. All the flats had to be made of sheer fabric so you could see through them." The set's memorable elements included giant sunflowers, a handless clock, a large sculpture of Atlas ("It's supposed to be upstage, but we had no upstage, so we put it behind the audience"), and an exotic lamp.

"I was looking for a filigreed brass Moroccan lamp like you'd see in a fortune-teller's booth in the Casbah," says Paul. "I looked and I looked, but I couldn't find what I wanted. One day Tennessee came up to me and handed me this big box. I opened it up, and there was this tacky fake Tiffany glass lamp with bright yellow daisies all over it, like you'd get from Woolworths or Walgreens. The cheesiest thing you've ever seen. I thought, is he kidding? Then I realized he was really serious. He was a genius with words, but on the visual end he didn't quite have it." Paul was able to transform the lamp into the piece of exquisite exotica that was required--as perhaps Williams knew he would. "I took this shabby piece of junk and painted it with colored shellac to make it look like leaded glass, and it was fine."

Out Cry's premiere on July 8, 1971, was "an event," says Paul. The Tribune gave it a front-page overnight review, in which critic William Leonard said that the "set of a cluttered stage which converts into something like a haunted house is a triumph of understatement." Critics also praised the performances of stars Eileen Herlie and Donald Madden. But the script itself didn't fare so well; deeply personal but deeply flawed, it was in need of drastic overhaul--as the failure of a 1973 Broadway production, in which neither Keathley nor Paul was involved, would prove.

In retrospect, Out Cry is probably most famous as the occasion for one of the most traumatic incidents in Williams's troubled life--his bitter breakup with Audrey Wood, the literary agent who had shepherded his career since 1940. The paranoid, drug-addicted author had become suspicious that Wood had abandoned him--"I think [she] thinks I'm dead," he told an interviewer in 1970. After a preview of Out Cry (the audience that night was "a bunch of old sour dames [who] didn't get anything," Williams later said), Keathley suggested a line revision. When Wood agreed with Keathley, Williams turned on her.

"The prop guy and I heard all this shouting in the dressing room," says Paul. "It was like listening to your parents having a fight. George and Tennessee and Audrey were all together, and Tennessee was screaming at her--'You have wished I was dead for the past ten years!' Suddenly they all erupted out of the dressing room, up the stairs to the lobby, and out onto Wellington Avenue. Audrey Wood went over to Clark Street, walking as quickly as she could, and grabbed a cab, never looking back. Tennessee was chasing her, calling her a bitch and saying she wanted him dead." They would never work together again.

Paul's skill at suggesting visually dense settings in the Ivanhoe's limited space paved the way for an impressive career with a wide range of local companies, including the Organic Theater, Godzilla Rainbow Troupe, American Blues Theatre, and his own Lionheart Gay Theatre. He's also worked in dance (including a ballet version of A Streetcar Named Desire in New Orleans) and for made-in-Chicago films such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Public Eye. Though his work takes him around the country, he's on his home ground these days designing two Tennessee Williams plays; both, coincidentally, are set in 1930s Saint Louis, where Williams was raised, an unhappy transplanted southerner in a city too northern for his sensibilities. The Writers' Theatre Chicago, housed at Books on Vernon in Glencoe, began performances last week of The Glass Menagerie, Williams's 1944 masterpiece about a possessive mother and emotionally disturbed sister very much like his own. Also this week Northlight Theatre opened Williams's little-known 1979 A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Creve Coeur (the name means "heartbreak") is a character study of four lonely women trapped in what Williams described as "the dried-blood horror of lower-middle-class American urban neighborhoods" like the one he grew up in. "These ladies could be living down the block from Glass Menagerie's Amanda and Laura," says Paul. "Tennessee's stage directions advise the designer to look to the illustrator Ben Shahn for inspiration. He means you can go pretty far in abstracting the set, not be naturalistic. He wants a hallucinatory, hothouse atmosphere." Paul's set combines naturalism and whimsical caricature, depicting a garishly colored, shabbily furnished apartment over which tower an expressionistically distorted fire escape and nightmarish jangled telephone lines; overhead, like a far away Neverland, hangs the green oasis of Creve Coeur park.

The Northlight space--shaped like a Greek amphitheater, with a high ceiling, a three-quarter thrust stage, and a sharply raked seating area--couldn't be more different than the tiny bookstore back room inhabited by the Writers' Theatre. "The whole room--including the audience--is the size of the Ivanhoe stage," says Paul. "There are moments when the actors talk over the viewers' heads, as if they were in the living room with them. I put architectural fragments hanging from the ceiling--sort of a ghostly effect, appropriate for a memory play." The set contains what Paul acknowledges as "an homage to one of my favorite actresses, Ann Sothern. It's a poster for one of her movies from the 30s, Kid Millions. I saw her play Amanda in a production of The Glass Menagerie that Keathley directed in Los Angeles--this was a couple of years before I started working at the Ivanhoe. When I met Tennessee I told him I'd seen her and she was wonderful. He said, 'I knew she would be.'"

Paul met Williams one more time after Out Cry, when they ran into each other at a Los Angeles movie theater a couple of years later. "It was a screening of Antonioni's Red Desert, and Williams was sitting there with his close friend Maria St. Just." (Coincidentally, Williams had dedicated Out Cry to St. Just.) "I went over and reintroduced myself--and right away he flew off the handle about George Keathley. I guess there was some lingering bitterness, not toward me but toward Keathley and Wood. People were walking into the theater and here was this little man, standing there screaming.

"I know everyone said he was crazy. But when I worked with him he was always trying to be helpful and was often very sweet. One day he came up to me with a poem he'd written, called 'Old Beaux and Faded Ladies'--he said it was inspired by my set. What the hell, today everybody's crazy. Today he'd be normal--an old philosopher." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rick Paul photo by Jim Alexander Newberry; Tennessee Williams (left) on the set of "Out Cry" in 1971 photo/ Chicago Sun-Times.

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