"Tennessee Williams is a gift to actors," said director Dan Mason, "in atmosphere, character, plot, and--what was essential to Williams: that emotional through-line."
Mason has demonstrated this belief to a group of his advanced acting students by staging a quartet of Williams' early one-acts under the title "Early Tennessee." The production (which enjoyed a successful run at the Powerhouse) reopens Thursday at the Cast Theatre in Hollywood.
"I just decided that the experience of doing a whole play on the stage would be much more interesting than doing a scene study class," he explained. "I picked up the Williams one-acts and just got spellbound. But I was confined to a certain group of people I wanted to work with. That whole process--when you sense what it is in an individual that will connect with a character, that essence someone has that can really be fleshed out--seemed fascinating to me."
But is it sufficiently challenging for the actor?
Yes, said Mason, 39. "Uta Hagen (with whom he studied in New York) used to say, 'Find a character that is very close to you--simple.' That becomes the first challenge: getting used to revealing yourself through the character. But in this cast, the essence I was talking about was there. I felt there was something that could ignite--with the characters, the situations, the 'foreign' southern atmosphere.
"And yet it was a real challenge. Michael Slater (who plays a young man denying his homosexuality in 'Auto-De-Fe') had done a few scenes in class--but nothing with the degree of torment, the fear, that's operable in that character. And Richard Millet (as a lost soul in 'Talk to Me') had never done anything of that complexity."
Mason appreciates the vigor they bring to the flamboyant roles: "Someone once said that theater isn't reality, but what reality can be. So you do want it heightened, and you dare the actors to be as strong as the material."
But, he says, there are limits.
"As in 'Talk to Me.' It's so lyrical, such intense poetry, that if you go too far, you can wallow in that imagery: the man groveling, going through that gut-wrenching. It's something I have to really control. With the woman's monologue, it's that old rule of thumb: When something's very lyrical, you go against that grain. If something's very moving emotionally, you try to work a little bit more through the humor aspects of it."
There are, he says, a lot of laughs in "Early Tennessee"--some nervous, some comfortable, yet all within the range of human pain.
"That why I think 'Something Unspoken' (the serio-comic breakfast table conversation of an older woman and her younger, live-in secretary) has been so well-received. It's my favorite kind of humor, Williams humor, because it comes out of something really desperate, as Chekhov does: being people on this earth, making the best of it against a lot of difficulties. We laugh in recognition."
And appreciation. "I saw (a production of Williams') 'Vieux Carre' in New York," he recalled. "I'd been caught up in the city's drive, energy, achievement. I was walking along, and suddenly I was noticing the flowers, the birds, the sky: feeling the wonderful pain of existence. I thought, 'Why am I suddenly so aware?' I'd been tuned in by Williams' language, the poetry, the humanity . And it sort of slapped some sense back into me."
Not that the actor-director (who taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and ran his own theater, Shelter West, in New York) hadn't realized his affinity before. A Minnesota native, Mason was a creative writing major at San Fransisco State University when he began being drawn to the stage.
And he discovered Williams: "In the '50s, there had been a strong lid placed on emotion in our society--and against being different, unusual, a person outside the norm.
"Somehow, in my appreciation of Williams' work, he ignited in me a way of understanding myself--and also looking at others, empathizing with them, exploring deeper emotions. And it awakened in me a desire for true intimacy with people. I think that's what happens in these plays--and, in a sense, what our best therapists are pushing for: Williams was going down to the bone, saying, 'Come on, people, don't be restricted. See this in a different way. Dare to get down .' "