Comedy is not what we associate with Tennessee Williams. Sure, there are funny lines in A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Glass Menagerie. But what we cherish is the poetry with which characters convey their ache and anger, all against the backdrop of clashing civilizations — or in Suddenly Last Summer, some cannibalism.
But Period of Adjustment, one of Williams' lesser-known plays, is every bit a comedy. A Christmas comedy.
Could the master of lyrical poignancy succeed in a genre so foreign to his greatest plays? This production, under the adept direction of Bill English, shows how versatile the playwright really was — and it makes the case that a dose of romcom holiday sentiment, properly handled, isn't that far from lyrical poignancy after all.
Period of Adjustment (now in a delightful and moving production at SF Playhouse) follows two young couples so mismatched they have quickly become estranged. The rules of comedy dictate that they make up — inevitably yet improbably — and, for the first time, fall in love.
Isabel (MacKenzie Meehan), who was born in a barn but harbors the pretenses of Blanche Dubois, and George (Patrick Alparone), a veteran who suffers from an incurable case of the shakes and pretends to be a boor, are on the rocks on their honeymoon. After a night at the Ol Man River Motel, the newlyweds have failed to consummate their marriage (or even have a conversation).
Williams contrasts them with Ralph (Johnny Moreno), George's outwardly affable but inwardly tumultuous army buddy, and Dorothea (Maggie Mason, in an underwritten part), who's not attractive enough for her husband even after several "extremely painful" cosmetic surgeries. These two have been married for a couple of years, but in a sense, they've never consummated their union, either — at least not with true feeling, free of guilt and small-minded judgments.
As the play opens, George and Isabel, seeking refuge from each other, pull their funeral limousine (don't ask) into Ralph's Nashville subdivision home that, situated on the roof of a cavern, has what feels like a California earthquake a couple times a day. (The "sweet lil' house," by set designer Nina Ball, expertly suggests a 1950s housewife's effort to conceal real and figurative cracks in facades with ruffles and wall-to-wall carpeting.)
But the problems aren't limited to tremors. It's Christmas Eve, Dorothea has just walked out on Ralph, and George, fueled by rage, PTSD, and his shakes, prefers to drive off, either in search of some booze or to abandon the marriage altogether, rather than introduce his wife to his friend.
The holiday conceit makes the plot predictable; you quickly infer that, by the end of the play, compassion, lust, and some good old-fashioned Christmas spirit will reconcile the beleaguered couples. But under English's well-paced direction, the mechanism never feels trite. By letting the comic tension melt into slow-burning desire, he shows us that a Williams seduction can have beauty and power even when it's preceded by dialogue like, "The world is a big hospital, and I'm a nurse in it."
That nurse is Isabel, and Meehan's exaggerated performance of her character's eccentricities is the comic engine of the strong ensemble. It's easy for her to make her line "I am gentle by nature" seem ridiculous; all she has to do is screech it. But she also finds more subtle absurdities: At the beginning of the play, in the few minutes before George speeds away, she makes it plausible that he would desert her just from the way, with overdone propriety, she insists on punctuating her every sentence with a "Mr. Bates," even after Ralph has asked her to call him by his first name. Then, in a moment of solitude, she bursts into silent histrionics, only to zing back into the conversation brighter than ever a moment later.
These characters — the Southern belle fighting for a lost society; the disaffected, bourbon-drinking husband — and the themes — sexual asymmetry in marriage; the emptiness of mid-century Southern mores — resonate more powerfully in Williams' better-known works. But this hidden gem of a play not only showcases his ability to move us in many different registers, it makes the holiday spirit into a real and powerful force.