In Tennessee Williams’ career-making plays of the 1940s, now considered American classics, thinly veiled desires and resentments balance delicately alongside the fragile social conventions that they threaten to expose.
In his later plays, including 1968’s “Kingdom of Earth,” the veil is ripped off, and Williams revels in the dark places and hard edges of Southern grotesqueries.
Many of these later works were dismissed as critical and commercial flops when they first appeared, but over the years, they have continued to intrigue theater artists and audiences willing to delve deeper into the darkness of Williams.
By choosing “Kingdom of Earth” as its inaugural production, the newly formed Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans makes it clear that they are interested in more than just the playwright’s greatest hits.
Directed by Augustin J. Carrero and running through Aug. 16 at Metropolitan Community Church, 6200 St. Charles Ave., “Kingdom of Earth” centers on the schemes of Lot Ravenstock, who returns to his dead mother’s rural Mississippi homestead with his new wife, Myrtle, intent on reclaiming the family’s property from Chicken, his illegitimate half-brother. Lot, a self-described “sissy” who’s too nervous to consummate his marriage, is dying from tuberculosis, and he can’t bear the thought of his darling mother’s house falling into the hands of his rough-hewn half-brother when he dies. The three characters do battle during a savage storm, the rising river threatening to breech the nearby levee and flood the house, a not-so-subtle metaphor for surging forces of nature barely contained.
As brash, buxom Myrtle, Kate Kuen hits the gas and never lets up, homing in on the dark humor of the former starlet’s shrill obliviousness. Sean Richmond, as Chicken, is a physical menace, big and brooding, as he stalks the stage bullying the married couple.
David Williams shines as the effeminate Lot, taking a quieter approach and casually tossing off wry one-liners and biting insults with a graceful spite. At the outset, the distinct performance styles establish the stark differences between these three characters and what’s at stake for each. However, as the play progresses, the lack of subtlety overwhelms the cat-and-mouse game integral to Williams’ script.
Myrtle clings to her fading glamour when she’s confronted with Chicken’s animalistic sexuality, much like Blanche and Stanley in “Streetcar Named Desire,” but the complicated characters would benefit from a softer touch.
Correro, also credited as the show’s scenic designer, has his work cut out for him in transforming a small church auditorium into a neglected country farmhouse. The sparse set becomes more effective when it dramatically opens up halfway through the first act in a clever, sleight-of-hand piece of staging.
The light design of Georgia Floor and sound design of Nick Shackleford creates a compelling illusion of a dark and stormy night, but there are some elements of the production — like the spare furniture stacked along the walls and covered with sheets — that underscore the value of dedicated theater space (which, admittedly, can be hard to come by in New Orleans, as evidenced by the recent shuttering of Mid-City Theatre).
“The Kingdom of Heaven” shows promise and passion, a solid foundation to build upon, as The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans attempts to expand the reach of one of the city’s most beloved playwrights.