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Digging into a master's past

Marin Theatre is staging "The Fugitive Kind," an early, unknown work by Tennessee Williams.

January 28, 2003|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

MILL VALLEY — A few years ago a friend came up to Lee Sankowich after a play at the Marin Theatre Company and asked the director if he was interested in reading a work by a young, unknown dramatist.

Not another one, Sankowich groaned to himself. Then he looked at the play. The author was Tennessee Williams. The friend, as it happened, was Lyle Leverich, Williams' authorized biographer and author of "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams."

The play was "Spring Storm," which Williams wrote in 1937 but which was never staged. Marin Theatre mounted a production in 1999 -- although Actors Repertory beat Marin by a week when it premiered the work at the University of Texas, where the script was discovered in the Williams archive.

Now Marin Theatre is staging another early, unknown work by Williams, "The Fugitive Kind," which opened earlier this month and runs through Feb. 9 in what Sankowich calls its professional premiere.

"I'm not trying to say that 'Fugitive Kind' is one of Williams' masterpieces," Sankowich says over coffee. "I don't pretend it's 'Streetcar' or 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.' It is what it is. It's the work of a master at an early age. But I find that much more interesting to stage than doing another masterpiece."

The play was written in 1937 when Williams was 26, long before he had any success or even the pen name Tennessee. At the time, Tom Williams had left the University of Missouri to work at a shoe company in St. Louis, but was taking night courses at Washington University and compulsively writing plays. He gathered material from the stories of other boarders at the rooming house where he lived, and roamed the waterfront soaking up the atmosphere of gloom and hard luck.

A local theatrical troupe called the Mummurs produced two of the struggling playwright's works that year: "Candles to the Sun" and "Fugitive Kind," which had two performances and then disappeared from sight -- although Williams kept working on drafts and later borrowed the title for the movie version of his play "Orpheus Descending."

After the success of Marin Theatre's "Spring Storm," Sankowich received permission from the Williams estate to go through his papers in Austin, Texas, and produce other unknown works (London's Royal National Theatre seems to have started the trend in staging obscure Williams plays in 1998 with "Not About Nightingales").

Sankowich read through thousands of crumbling pages before deciding that "Fugitive Kind" was worth resurrecting (the director was followed by a film crew for a proposed documentary on the project).

Although "Fugitive Kind" was written around the same time as "Spring Storm," the two plays are very different. "Storm" centers on a love-triangle in a small Southern town; "Fugitive" revolves around a flophouse in a large Midwestern city, although there's also a love triangle, as well as a whiff of radical, Depression-era politics.

"The people in this play never had any chance to recover from the Depression," Sankowich says. "They were transients, hobos."

The main characters (amid a parade of 30 roles) are Glory, a repressed young woman working at the boardinghouse, and Terry, an angry, alienated criminal on the run. "All I've got," he says, "is my indignation."

She resists his attention; he insists. Their eventual union is explosive -- and fatal.

"The big challenge was not to fall into melodrama," Sankowich says. "Williams really overstated a lot of things. This play was heavy-handed and it still is."

Still, reviews have been good. "Raw poetic power and a flair for the drama of hopeless aspirations -- all are as evident in this earnestly, at times grippingly staged drama as subtlety and finesse are lacking," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Williams thought of too many characters and too many themes," added the San Francisco Weekly. "He couldn't focus them, and frankly I'm glad he didn't. His profusion of seedy waterfront fugitives has an innocence all its own and a romance that hasn't lost its charm."

"Does it work?" Sankowich asks. "Yeah, I think it works very well. There are some wonderful gems in it, some wonderfully poetic lines, very intense characters and interesting relationships.

"I never would have done the play if I didn't think that it stood on its own."

Many familiar Williams' themes are apparent: familial rebellion, the intoxicating attraction of opposites and unleashed longing, a sexually aggressive man in a tight undershirt.

"It's been so fascinating to be able to study a man who became a master," Sankowich says, "to see him developing his craft, his voice, his people. It's like looking at a young Picasso."

Sankowich, who has been the artistic director at Marin Theatre since 1990, says that he eventually intends to bring one of the early Williams plays -- he hasn't decided which -- to Los Angeles, where he owns the Zephyr Theatre.

But he says he might continue to fiddle with the script. (A slightly different production directed by Sankowich opens in March at Center Repertory Theater in Walnut Creek.)

When he directed "Storm," Sankowich was not allowed to edit the script. But this time, the estate gave him permission to rework the play. Most of what he did, Sankowich says, was merely to cut back some of the playwright's more windy arias, trimming about half an hour from the production.

"I left the longer speeches long or it wouldn't have been Williams, after all," he says.

"I have no doubt he would have cut it down himself if he had ever gone back to it again. I never gave Williams a word he didn't write."

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