The Glass Menagerie, the 1944 play that launched Tennessee Williams to stardom, originally had a different title: The Gentleman Caller. And it’s that name that Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins has repurposed for this original story (based on true events) of Williams’s relationship with fellow playwright, gay man, and alcoholic William Inge. It’s a beautiful play, equal parts Williams, Inge, and Dawkins himself—a stiff, intoxicating cocktail that knocks you flat on your back and leaves you there.
Set just before and after The Glass Menagerie premieres in Chicago to rapturous reviews, The Gentleman Caller presents a Williams (played by Rudy Galvan) who’s charming, catty, and tooling around St. Louis in a manner that’s just a few rungs above vagrancy. He’s been invited to the home of the local arts critic—that’s Inge, played by Curtis Edward Jackson—under the pretense of doing a story for the paper: the local boy made good.
It’s not five minutes before Williams’s host is quite literally ripping his guest’s clothes off and bending him over the couch, an approach to sex so brutal, fumbling and frigid that it practically screams idwest. Williams demurs, because he really does need the good press. Inge is ashamed, a sentiment he’s quite used to. And the two men get to talking, and drinking, and fighting and flirting and fighting again, and then drinking again. It’s a back-and-forth that continues a month or so later, after the intermission, in Williams’s Chicago hotel room after Menagerie’s opening.
Both men are complete in their unhappiness, their brokenness, their outcast status, but only Williams seems at peace with it. That’s why he also gets to be the narrator. Dawkins’s play is full of these little metatheatrical moments, which also include a fast-forward through one scene because to perform it properly would require a live dog, a potential upstaging that Williams refuses to entertain. You can get away with anything if you do it well enough, and that’s the case here. All this post-modern, Menagerie-aping folderol should get tiring, but it doesn’t.
The two playwrights make for the perfect pair. Williams is all languid sexual energy and a puckish, unceasing wit that doubles as a clever means of avoidance. Inge, on the other hand, is an exemplar of respectable Midwestern repression. What unites them is their complete unsuitability for “normal” midcentury life. Their sexuality and their sensitivity have doomed them to a life of artistry. At one point, Williams opines that “sexual inverts” like themselves make such fine artists because it gives them something “to do, instead of to be.” It’s a line that breaks your goddamned heart.
Of course, the brilliance of Dawkins’s script wouldn’t be much without a brilliant production to match it. Luckily director Cody Estle, in his inaugural production as Raven Theatre’s new artistic director, has delivered. (It’s also the theater’s first-ever commission. Bravo.) The same can be said of Galvan and Jackson, whose chemistry onstage achieves a slow burn, a fast burn, and every speed of burn in between. It’s a wonder they don’t set the room on fire.
Jackson’s Inge is clenched so tightly he looks like he’s about to have a full-body aneurysm. Williams repeatedly refers to Inge as a watcher, an audience member skulking around in the dark; late in the play, when Inge unspools a long, doomy story from his childhood, you can practically see the horror movie playing out inside his own head. You can see him watching.
Galvan, meanwhile, unleashes Williams’s onslaught of one-liners with such ease you’d believe it was actually possible for a man to be that clever. He mixes grandiloquence and melancholy with aplomb, but also keeps Tennessee earthbound. Or at least, earthy. There’s also a scene involving Galvan’s foot and Jackson’s belt buckle that deserves to catch the public imagination like the pottery scene from Ghost.
The set, designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec, is presented within a large exposed wood frame, like a traditional proscenium that’s had its front facade shorn off. It’s exacting, presentational and a little bit flippant; exactly what the play requires. Within that frame is a pair of gorgeously realized rooms. Well, Inge’s apartment isn’t exactly gorgeous. It exudes the kind of sadness that only a room decorated with pine can truly express. But like most everything else here, it is utter, tragic perfection.
Raven Theatre. By Philip Dawkins. Directed by Cody Estle. With Rudy Galvan,Curtis Edward Jackson. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.