30th Tennessee Williams festival targets the playwright’s poetic style _lowres

Photo by Brian Jarreau -- Curtis Billings, Annalee Jefferies in 'The Glass Menagerie.'

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, and to celebrate, organizers have put together a schedule of theatrical offerings that includes selections from Williams’ extensive contribution to American theater, from classic dramas to lesser-known, one-act plays, in addition to several career-spanning showcases.

“We’re trying to have as much Williams content as we can, as well as trying to have a well-rounded representation of his work,” said Paul J. Willis, the festival’s executive director.

“Each year, we pick a different theme within his work, and this year, it’s on Williams the poet, meaning not necessarily just his poetry, but his lyrical style and the imagery in all of his pieces.”

The festival officially runs from March 30 to April 3, featuring a number of high-profile writers and theater artists participating in a wide array of workshops, master classes and panel discussions, but the theatrical performances kick off this weekend and continue through next month.

“The Glass Menagerie” opens at Le Petit Theater, playing March 18 to April 3. “The Glass Menagerie” was well-received when it premiered in 1944, marking the beginning of Williams’ decadeslong career.

The play centers on Tom, a would-be poet working at a St. Louis shoe warehouse to support his ailing sister Laura and his mother, Amanda, who pines for the Southern grandeur of her youth. “The Glass Menagerie” lacks the overt sexuality and simmering passion that define some of Williams’ other major plays, but his tender depiction of loneliness and isolation is emblematic of the work he would make for years to come.

This year’s festival also includes two world premieres of previously unproduced Tennessee Williams work. “Tennessee Williams: Weird Tales,” a trio of one-acts presented by the Tennessee Williams Theatre Co. of New Orleans from April 1-17 at the Metropolitan Community Church, includes premieres of “Ivan’s Widow,” a 1982 play about a woman taken in by a scheming psychotherapist after the death of her husband, and “The Strange Play,” from 1939, a supernatural work about a young girl who glimpses her future in a French Quarter courtyard. These plays will be presented with “Steps Must Be Gentle,” a play from 1980 in which Williams imagines a conversation between poet Hart Crane and his dead mother, as the two spar over their dreams and disappointments.

Adding depth

According to Willis, working with local theater companies to feature shows that run beyond the single weekend of the festival adds depth to the festival’s theatrical offerings.

“Southern Rep, Le Petit and (the Tennessee Williams Theatre Co. of New Orleans) — they’re all passionate about the city, and they all have a genuine connection and passion for Williams, so we’re able to have high-quality work that we otherwise wouldn’t have the budget to do ourselves,” he said.

During the festival weekend, performances of Williams’ work will include the one-act play “Something Unspoken,” directed by Willis, about the relationship between a wealthy Southern matriarch and her longtime secretary. There will also be a staged reading of “Goat Song,” a short play that eventually evolved into “Orpheus Descending,” presented by the Theatre Program of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

All-star tribute

Other festival offerings include showcase performances that pull together samples of Williams work from across his writing career.

The all-star “Tribute Reading to Tennessee Williams the Poet,” will feature writers and performers — including television personality Dick Cavett, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley (“Crimes of the Heart”) and writer Dorothy Allison (“Bastard Out of Carolina”) — reading from Williams’ plays, poems, short stories and essays.

“He Knew He Would Say It — But Could He Believe It Again,” performed by Jeremy Lawrence and Zachary Clause, blends fragments from Williams’ plays, poems and unpublished works with original music to craft a story about Williams’ pursuit of love.

“Tennessee’s Got Talent” brings together performers from across the country to present 10-minute selections from or inspired by Williams’ work.

“People might not be familiar with his short stories, or haven’t read some of his personal essays or pieces from his memoirs, so it’s an opportunity to bring a broader perspective,” Willis said. “Not like a museum or historical piece, but really how he captured the human spirit.”

View the full details on the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s website tennesseewilliams.net.