SAN DIEGO — Tennessee Williams, whose life was even more flamboyant than his plays, rarely missed an opportunity for soap opera when he found one. His stays in Mexico offered him several. And certainly his 1962 "The Night of the Iguana," set in the run-down, isolated Costa Verde Hotel somewhere on the West Coast of Mexico, is prime soap opera passing for something more classy, such as drama.
The play, which opened over the weekend on the open-air Festival Stage of the Old Globe complex, has its madonna-spinster, its defrocked priest, its sweet old poet, its earthy hotel keeper and its obvious symbol--that chained iguana tugging for its freedom at the end of its rope.
Like Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth," "Iguana" plays heavily on a form of subliminal, sentimentalized sex. The characters are cheaply vivid and overblown and seem separated by plot rather than brought together by it. There is something entirely too facile and too deliberately assembled about the whole affair to be genuinely satisfying.
Because Williams is fundamentally skillful, however, a good staging of this play can get close. The burden in any production falls on the actors and their ability to create the central electrical charge essential to it.
Sparks must fly when Shannon (Byron Jennings), the alcoholic former priest reduced to shepherding busloads of Texan schoolteachers around Mexico, encounters Hannah Jelkes (Kandis Chappell), the spinster artist sketching her penurious way around the world with her 97-year-old poet/grandfather Nonno (Archie Smith) in tow.
It's the collision of opposite but connected lost souls--vice and virtue, dissolution and strength--on the edge of this rain forest.
Everything else in "Iguana" is subordinate to this center: Shannon's mindless seduction of a young girl on his bus; his longstanding relationship with the frowzy, tough-talking Maxine (Debra Mooney); the Nazi hotel guests clucking and parading their Aryan self-satisfaction among those other lives in ruin. The trick is to make all the disparate pieces of this romantic puzzle come together.
They don't quite in Craig Noel's staging, despite the casting of actors who would seem ideally suited for the roles. The fire never ignites between Jennings and Chappell, although neither performance can be technically faulted.
Chappell is the epitome of grace and dignity under pressure--a smoldering bower of strength, a lonely, detached woman caught up in circumstances that might have tried Job. Jennings gives us a stormy and troubled yet surprisingly cold Shannon, anguished but not breakable. It's a critical vacancy. His compassion for the tragically trapped Hannah lacks a persuasive element of warmth. Their crucial double recitatives in the second act, at the very heart of this play, drone on in a low-key monotone that has the effect of totally losing us.
There's even less intimacy between Jennings and Mooney. A gut-level self-respect impedes Mooney from flaunting Maxine's devil-may-care, faded sexuality. The vulgarity feels superimposed. The Germans, of course, are not much more than cardboard figures as written, and Mitchell Edmonds, David Wright, Diane Robinson and Mary Boersma make the most of this martial lot. The balance of the company competently rounds out the production.
Robert Blackman's costumes, Kent Dorsey's lightning and lights, and Richard Seger's Costa Verde Hotel create a credible if not spectacular setting (not quite up to Old Globe standards). Residents of the adjoining San Diego Zoo and a few wild owls lend sound designer Mark Sherman unexpected support: unscheduled hooting and screeching that money can't buy and that give this rain forest a striking authenticity.
'THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA"
A revival of the Tennessee Williams drama on the Lowell Davies Festival Stage of the Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts in Balboa Park. Director Craig Noel. Set designer Richard Seger. Lighting designer Kent Dorsey. Costume designer Robert Blackman. Sound designer Mark Sherman. Music Coordinator Larry Delinger. Stage manager Diane F. DiVita. Assistant stage manager Robert Drake. Cast Hugo Sanchez, Debra Mooney, John Padilla, Byron Jennings, David Wright, Diane Robinson, Mitchell Edmonds, Mary Boersma, Mathew Phillip Davis, Sandy Kelly Hoffman, Kandis Chappell, Cynthia Blaise, Archie Smith, Eric Grischkat. Performances run Tuesdays through Sundays, 8:30 p.m., through July 5 then reopen July 28 and run in repertory with "The Comedy of Errors" though Aug. 30. Tickets: $19.50-$22; (619) 239-2255.