The three one-act plays that compose “Tennessee Williams: Weird Tales,” presented by the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans and co-directed by company founders Augustin Correro and Nick Shackleford, are both familiar and strange. Admirers of the playwright will recognize bits of language and some character types, but these plays exist in a dark, supernatural world, far removed from the faded Southern belles and lost plantations of Williams’ most popular works.
The show gets off to a slow start, but “Weird Tales,” running through April 17 at the St. Charles Avenue Christian Church, quickly evolves into a mesmerizing evening of creatively crafted theater.
The church setting works here, since “Weird Tales” is the kind of experimental theater more often found in bars and back rooms than in theaters — challenging audience expectations even before the show begins.
The evening opens with “Steps Must Be Gentle,” featuring David Williams as the dead poet Hart Crane and Maggie Eldred as his late mother, Grace, as they try to overcome the “impossible depth and distance” that plagues their relationship in death as it did in life. The conversation is cast as a bizarre underwater phone call with a “tenuous connection,” and the performers rarely address each other face-to-face.
The iciness of the relationship carries over to the performances as Williams and Eldred never quite connect. Much of the dialogue is elegant and elegiac, showing off Tennessee Williams’ poetic side, but the language is less suited to the dramatic confrontation of the play.
The second piece, “Ivan’s Widow” — which, along with “The Strange Play,” is a world premiere production — is much more emotionally charged, as a woman (Alexandra Kennon) and her therapist (John Giardina) lock horns in a combat fueled by madness, manipulation and liquor.
The nature of their entanglement is never quite clear, as Williams eschews plot for atmosphere, creating menacing scenes of violence and sexuality that are intensified by the horror-movie sound design and original music of Shackleford and Stephen Burgess.
The characters resemble Stanley and Blanche of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” or Brick and Maggie of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in their battle of the sexes, and the play has moments that equal those famous fights. But the mysterious circumstances of “Ivan’s Widow” become more baffling than intriguing by the end of the play.
In the final play, “The Strange Play,” inventive production values elevate the strangeness to something spectacular.
The plot is odd and a little confusing. A young girl, Isabel, meets an apparition of her future husband (Christopher Grim) and their son (Andrew King), who is a space-traveler tasked with saving the planet — perhaps the only science fiction tale ever set in the French Quarter.
As Isabel, Emily Russell turns in one of the finest performances of the evening, the steady center of a strange world. Costume designer Hope Bennett outfits a trio of hissing hags in housecoats and shower caps with grotesque appendages, and reveals an equally spooky leather-clad spaceman. The music again adds to the spectacle, as does a creatively-conceived sailing ship.
The opportunity to present two never-before-seen plays by Tennessee Williams is no small honor, and the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans rises to the occasion. These might not be major works, but they make for interesting theater, both in their own right and as a part of the legacy of Tennessee Williams — a playwright who prowled the world’s dark corners long before, and long after, he shone under the bright lights of Broadway.