SAN DIEGO — In the early 1970s, Tennessee Williams heard that the University of Minnesota had staged a pretty good production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "A Streetcar Named Desire." He traveled from New York to catch a performance.
Debra Mooney, the theater student playing Blanche DuBois, remembers that evening well: "We were very frightened that night we knew he was there. . . . At that time, Time magazine had just called him the greatest living playwright of the Western world."
She needn't have worried. Williams lavished praise on her performance on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. He wrote: "I have seen her (Blanche) played with great wit as well as pathos . . . by a young actress named Debra Mooney. She made me howl with laughter at my own work."
It was the beginning of a friendship that was to last until Williams' death three years ago. When Mooney appears as Maxine in "The Night of the Iguana" at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, which opened Friday night and runs through Aug. 30, it will mark her first professional appearance in a Williams play that Williams himself will not see.
Many critics see Williams as the poet of gentle victims clinging to a way of life that dooms them to defeat. Not Mooney. She says the key to Williams is his sense of humor and his belief in survival.
"He never gave up on anybody. . . . He himself was a survivor," she said. After he saw her play the scene in "Streetcar" where Blanche goes to the sanitarium, he told her: "Of course, she didn't stay there."
Similarly, in "Iguana," when the defrocked minister, Shannon, must choose between the earthy woman, Mooney's Maxine, and the pristine one, Hannah, those who "lose" are not simply portraits of individuals going under.
"They're all . . . different facets of one personality: Tennessee's," Mooney said.
"He was a man with the most marvelous sense of humor about himself, about life, about his plays. . . . A lot of times that gets missed. These plays are so moving you feel you have to be very serious about them. We know we're going to die, but we have fun, we laugh. . . .
"Part of him could see the whole picture and how small we are in the universe. He had humor about how much it all means."
Mooney, too, sees herself as a survivor. When she went into acting, she was divorced and had an infant. A year after Williams noticed her, she went to New York with no money, a sewing machine, a suitcase and her daughter, Kristin.
"To survive that is against all odds," she said. "You either develop some strength or you go home."
Mooney decided to develop some strength. And Williams was right there to help her.
She called the Circle Repertory Theatre, looking for work. She was shocked when the voice at the other end of the line said, "Tennessee's been talking about you. We've been waiting for you to call."
The theater gave her a small part in a revival of Williams' "Battle of Angels." Williams saw her at rehearsal and wrote her some more lines.
Their friendship grew. He told her about his mother, a voluble woman who was the model for Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie." His mother had once been told by some women she was traveling with: "Not so loud, Mrs. Williams." Later, when his mother recounted the story to him, she said, "Son, I hadn't even opened my mouth!"
Mooney also played Alma in an off-Broadway revival of "Summer and Smoke."
Williams' star had been fading since "The Night of the Iguana," a 1961 hit for which he won a Critics' Circle Award. His last play, "A House Not Meant to Stand," never made it to Broadway. His last play that did, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," was a failure.
Mooney feels the critics were particularly harsh to him because of his reputation. "Once we put someone on a pedestal, we refuse to give them the chance to fail," she said. "You have to take those chances. Otherwise, how can you create?
"I don't think he ever stopped taking chances. He never cried, 'Hold--enough!' Even in the face of those who were waiting for him to die so he could turn into a legend, he would say, 'I am inconveniently alive.' "
During those same years, Mooney worked with other highly respected playwrights on Broadway. She played Sally Talley in Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly," Faye Medwick in Neil Simon's "Chapter Two" and Linda Loman opposite Dustin Hoffman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Off-Broadway, she has worked with, among others, Romulus Linney, Jules Feiffer and A.R. Gurney Jr.
It was Gurney who brought her to the Old Globe for his world premiere of "Another Antigone" at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage. She played Dean Diana Eberhart, a role she will repeat in New York when the producers take the play there in the fall.
While "Antigone" was the reason she came to San Diego, Mooney was happy to accept the Old Globe's offer to stay on for "Iguana" and the Georges Feydeau farce, "There's One in Every Marriage," which will play July 24-Sept. 20 at the Old Globe.
It has been roughly a decade since Mooney last appeared in a Williams play. And doing "Iguana" has brought back a lot of memories.
"I miss him. I miss feeling he's going to show up," she said. "I hear him when we're rehearsing. I hear his laughter. . . . He had a wonderful laugh. It's kind of like the way he describes Maxine's laugh. He had a 'Hah!' that he threw in the middle of a sentence. . . . He went through so much . . . (but still) he enjoyed life."
And though it is hard for her to do her first Williams play without Williams in the audience, she sees his absence as an opportunity to pay back an old debt.
"Because of someone like that, you've got the desire to go on and do it well for him," she said. "Even now that he's gone, I want to give the play back to him as best we can. The only way his reputation will go on strong is to do this play well."