Tennessee Williams is best known for his plays A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it was a character in another, less well-known play, that haunted him for decades.
Williams was obsessed with the story of Alma, a spinsterish vocal teacher in a southern town who struggles against conformity, small mindedness, and her own sexual urges.
Williams first wrote about Alma in 1947 in the short story, The Yellow Bird, which he adapted into Summer and Smoke. It had a brief, unsuccessful, run on Broadway in 1948. Williams then wrote and rewrote Alma’s story over a 25-year period, turning it into an all-together different play, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, first performed on Broadway in 1976.
“Look, I’m Alma,” Williams told the cast, according to Donald Spoto’s biography of the playwright.
On the 100th anniversary of Williams’ birth, the Aurora Theatre Company has brought the little-performed Eccentricities on a Nightingale to the stage. While the moral and sexual struggles at the center of this appealing production feel a bit dated, Alma’s quest to define herself on her own terms remains as relevant today as it did during Williams’ life.The action takes place in Glorious Hill, Mississippi before World War I. Alma Winemiller, whose lovely voice has earned her the nickname “Nightingale of the Delta,” is unmarried and living with her conservative preacher father and deranged mother. For years, Alma has loved and desired her next-door neighbor, John Buchanan, who has now become a doctor. She spies on him late at night from the window of her bedroom and is acutely aware of all he does. John is attracted to Alma, too, but his over-protective mother interferes every time the young couple draws close.
Alma and John finally come together, but not in the marriage-sanctioned way of the South before World War I. The force of their attraction and its consequences, particularly for Alma, are the heart of Eccentricities.
Tom Ross, the artistic director of Aurora, was interested in directing Eccentricities because it explores many of Williams’ most potent themes, yet is not well-known.
“One thing I love to do at the Aurora is work by well-known writers that may not be their greatest hits,” said Ross. “I love the opportunity of being able to present an unknown gem.”
The cast is first-rate. Beth Wilmurt is utterly convincing as a very eccentric Alma who has so repressed her longings that they involuntarily come out in peculiar mannerisms, a high-pitched laugh, and arms that seem to have a life of their own. Her nemesis, Mrs. Buchanan, as played brilliantly by Marcia Pizzo in her Aurora debut, is alternately creepy in her unnatural attraction to her own son, and charmingly southern, like when she dresses up as Mrs. Santa Claus. Thomas Gorrebeeck, who plays Alma’s love interest, John, shows how a town’s golden boy could be intrigued by a woman who stands outside convention.
Amy Crumpacker, as Mrs. Winemiller, has a gentle madness that allows her to speak some truths that are better left unspoken. And Charles Dean perfectly embodies the high-handed and unknowingly callous Reverend Winemiller, who is so scared his daughter’s eccentricities preshadow signs of her mother’s madness that he pushes too hard to control her.
The world, or at least the Bay Area, is vastly more tolerant of eccentrics than when Williams was growing up in the South. But the struggle to remain true to oneself, even if different than most, remains as universal as ever.
“The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” is playing at the Aurora Theatre Company 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 8.