Tennessee Williams’ best-known plays often portray characters on the fringes of polite society, struggling to find to their place in the world. In his later works, Williams abandons polite society altogether, turning instead to the boarding houses, back alleys, and barrooms where characters take solace in whatever cold comforts they can find.
These late-career plays never earned the same critical acclaim of Williams’ early Broadway hits, but in hindsight, Williams’ earnest explorations of tragic beauty and loneliness deserve a second look.
The burgeoning Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans made a mark earlier this year with their debut production of “Kingdom of Earth,” and now the company takes on the 1972 drama “Small Craft Warnings,” running through Dec. 20 at Mag’s 940. The production, like Williams’ script, is a little rough around the edges, but the heartache and humor shines through, rewarding audiences who are willing to follow Williams into edgier terrain.
Directed by Augustin J. Correro, “Small Craft Warnings” is a character-driven drama that takes place on Christmas Eve at Monk’s Place, a dive bar on the California coast. The proprietor, Monk (played by James Wright), stationed at the bar with his old friend Doc (Robert A. Mitchell), tries to keep the peace between a cast of down-and-out regulars whose love lives are all tangled together.
When a thick fog rolls in from the ocean, Monk comments on the small craft advisory announced over the radio.
“That’s right, Monk,” replies Doc. “And you’re running a place of refuge for vulnerable human vessels.”
Among those taking refuge at Monk’s Place is Violet (Natalie Jones), a prostitute who shows up at the bar with her suitcase after being evicted.
When Violet engages in some under-the-table intimacy with Bill (Mathew Madden), a street hustler, they are caught in the act by Bill’s occasional girlfriend Leona (LaKesha Glover), who then reveals the indiscretion to Violet’s occasional boyfriend Steve (Jordan Kaplan).
Joining the regulars is Quentin (Bob Edes, Jr.), a well-dressed gentleman who drops in with Bobby (Gavin Robinson), a young boy he picked up on the street, though Quentin’s attention quickly turns to Bill.
This complicated web mostly serves as a way to delve into the lives of each character, examining the dashed hopes and deferred dreams that led them all to the same place.
The strength of “Small Craft Warnings” is rooted in the performances. Glover is especially good as Leona, who drives much of the show’s action.
All of the characters are complex, layered with sadness and bitter resolve, but still clinging to their dignity. The actors avoid making caricatures of these “vulnerable human vessels” by effectively conveying their subtleties.
The site-specific setting at Mag’s 940, a neighborhood bar at 940 Elysian Fields Ave., is nearly perfect, allowing audiences and actors to fully inhabit the world of the play.
The script doesn’t shy away from the character’s lewd lives, so there is some explicit content and rough language.
The production isn’t without blemishes — a few flubbed lines, some awkwardness navigating the tight space, a couple of overly long, self-indulgent monologues — but they’re easy to forgive, since “Small Craft Warnings” is an honest looks at the flaws that make us all human.