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Review: Tamara Braun in intimate 'Tennessee in the Summer'

April 18, 2012|By Margaret Gray
  • Tamara Braun and Jack Heller play two aspects of Tennessee Williams' personality in "Tennessee in the Summer."
Tamara Braun and Jack Heller play two aspects of Tennessee Williams'… (Janice Allen )

If you’ve been struggling to dissuade your child from becoming a playwright, here’s an easy fix: Take the theatrically inclined scribbler to the Sidewalk Studio Theatre to see “Tennessee in the Summer,” Joe Besecker’s nightmarish portrait of the late-career Tennessee Williams, sweating, reminiscing, drinking and gulping Seconal pills in a New York City hotel room.

Besecker’s conceit is that Williams (the great Jack Heller) had an inner child — actually a young blond woman in a slip, played here by the slinky, sloe-eyed soap opera star Tamara Braun. As the lights come up, Williams hunches over his typewriter, surrounded by balled-up pages, while the blond sprawls on the bed, complaining of boredom and taunting Williams about his “recent string of box-office flops.” Eventually she lures a hustler (Robert Standley) into the room, effectively ending the workday.

“Woman,” as she is listed in the program, owes a great deal to Williams’ female characters, particularly Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But she’s also a persuasive embodiment of that inner voice that can make the most successful existence an inescapable hell. At times her mockery becomes so vicious that I was tempted to grab a Seconal for myself. (The 33-seat space is very intimate. I essentially participated in the steamy sex scenes, staged fearlessly by director Sal Romeo.) But she can also be sympathetic, even loving, and in the most wrenching scene, when Williams’ brother Dakin (Standley again) tricks him into committing himself, she suffers alongside him.

Woman forces Williams to relive painful incidents from his past: encounters with his adored schizophrenic sister, Rose (Louise Davis), and pivotal moments in his 14-year romance with the muscular Frankie Merlo (Standley yet again). Davis is chilling as the mad, impish Rose, and also performs an unforgettable monologue as Williams’s equally crazy and far meaner mother, Edwina. The character of Frankie is the least well written, almost mawkish, and the point of his scenes seems to be to present Williams’ selfish, cruel side.

So vividly does this play depict a great writer’s misbehavior, isolation, terror and misery that even the most stage-struck youth in the audience is bound to fill out that law school application you brought along just in case.

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“Tennessee in the Summer.” Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Drive, Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 20. $20. (818) 558-5702 or www.sidewalkstudiotheatre.info. Running time: 2 hours.

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