Confessions of a Nightingale
By Charlotte Chandler and Ray Stricklyn
Based on the book, “The Ultimate Seduction” by Charlotte Chandler and other sources
Directed by Mike Seely
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2018 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
At the very beginning of our evening with him, Tennessee Williams quotes a profile that labels him, “the most important American playwright of this century”. Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller aside, Williams was one of the mid-20th-century playwrights that made that period such a crucial and fertile time in American theatre. The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth are the leading evidence for that claim, all trailing awards and Hollywood adaptations with big-name stars.
Confessions of a Nightingale is a dishy taste of the playwright’s penchant for talking about himself. Williams relished his celebrity, and the first part of the play is a superficial succession of names dropped, mostly with barbed commentary balanced with heartfelt affection. William Faulkner, Marlon Brando, Vivian Leigh are among the legends recounted in William’s florid storytelling.
There isn’t a lot of structure in the script, but the narrative moves into memories of William’s partner Frank Merlo, who was with him many years. His death in 1963 was devastating for Williams and seems to have precipitated a reliance on drugs and alcohol that diminished his work and health. Williams denies that interpretation here, attributing the lackluster reception of his later work to the fickle taste of both critics and audiences.
The evening wraps up with extensive ruminations on his family, particularly his mother, Edwina and sister Rose, whose tragic fate dominates most analysis of Williams’ work.
Roger Fristoe lends his Tennessee Williams more than just a languid Mississippi drawl. Something of a local celebrity himself, Fristoe leans into the concept of a famous bon vivant offering up a loose, stream-of-conscious memoir to a lucky group of acolytes, moving about his Key West home with a glass of wine in a slightly boozy fashion. It is a relaxed, easygoing performance that immediately engages the audience.
I do think the lack of a more formal dramatic structure is a weakness of the material, and I could not help but wish that director Mike Seeley had kicked up the pace a bit. As charming as Mr. Fristoe is here, being the only actor onstage for more than 90 minutes is a challenge, and the responsibility for bringing the momentum the text lacks is entirely on his shoulders.
Still and all, the text, drawn from interviews with Williams by Charlotte Chandler, is a fascinating glimpse into a halcyon period in American culture, and there is a great deal of insight into some of the greatest plays. As much as Williams protests seeing Menagerie and others as autobiography, the stories reinforce that perspective more often than refute it.
The setting is good, dominated by a large rattan chair and several paintings executed by Williams (in reality, Fristoe) that help illustrate his relationship with his family, and Nick Dent’s lighting subtly shifts in an unobtrusive fashion that never calls attention to itself.
Confessions of a Nightingale
December 6 -16 @ 7:30pm
Tickets at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.