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Bad Boys 

Causeless rebels, in a Tennessee Williams play you've never seen before

Wednesday, Jan 22 2003
To most Tennessee Williams fans, Fugitive Kind is the title of a 1959 Brando movie about a snakeskin jacket-wearing blues guitarist who upsets the women of a small Mississippi town. The film was based on Orpheus Descending, a Williams play that went to Broadway in 1957. The playwright himself decided to ransack one of his own forgotten early manuscripts for the title of the movie, presumably because the words "fugitive kind" rang more sweetly in Hollywood ears than anything with Greek in it. The current Marin Theatre Company production has nothing to do with the film; rather, it's a premiere of the original, long-forgotten Fugitive Kind, written in 1937 -- when Williams was 26 -- and brought up from the dead by Marin's artistic director, Lee Sankowich.

The company has done this before. Almost three years ago it premiered Spring Storm, another journeyman effort by Williams that was languishing, all but unproduced, in his archives at the University of Texas at Austin. Both plays are stirring, romantic stories of young women tragically in love. Both belong to a time in Williams' life before he could admit to being gay and before he was known as Tennessee (he was born Thomas Lanier Williams). Both need editing.

Fugitive Kind is set in a riverfront St. Louis flophouse during the Depression. Among all the tramps moving in and out under the eye of Glory, the young woman in charge, is a shadowy, sharp-dressed man loaded with hundred-dollar bills. Before she knows his name, Glory trusts him naively and finds herself attracted to his noirish air of danger. He's edgy and mistrustful. "How do I know you ain't gonna call the cops on me?" he asks. She brushes him off. "How do I know you ain't gonna stick the place up?" she answers. He turns out to be a famous bank robber, Terry Meighan, but by the time Glory learns his name it's far too late. Against her will, better judgment, and proper middle-class upbringing, she's in love with the fugitive kind.

Williams can't be accused of subtlety, and in this early script he also can't hide his influences. The waterfront setting populated by lowlifes recalls William Saroyan and Eugene O'Neill. Radical-left speeches by Glory's brother, Leo (Richard Gallagher), bear the stamp of Clifford Odets. Even more interesting than the marks of his teachers, though, are the touches of the future Tennessee, like his thumbnail portrait of a fancy Southern streetwalker named Bertha, dressed in shimmering green and graced with the sort of opening line that only Williams could give a lady. "I thought I smelled somethin' rotten around here, but I thought it was the wind from the packin' house," she says on her way into the flophouse. "I didn't know Jabe was in town."

Jabe is a stool pigeon, one of the good-guy villains of the play. Bertha goes on to sprinkle her short scene with innuendo about cocaine -- the men call her a "snow bird" -- and invites them to visit her when they scrape up some cash. Then she leaves, trailing sin and sensation, never to appear again onstage. Danielle Thys plays her beautifully.

Fugitive Kind is also drenched in a stylish, alluring early cool. "I'm a sort of one-man revolution," Terry tells Glory. And later, "I don't wanna wait for social justice, like the man said. I'll take mine right now." Years before James Dean or Jack Kerouac made causeless rebellion fashionable to mainstream American kids, Glory gets caught by the romance of the streets. You realize that Williams went on to become a major architect of hip culture in the '50s, if only because he wrote the roles that called for Marlon Brando to strip. ("In the age of Calvin Klein's steaming hunks," wrote Gore Vidal in 1985, "it must be hard for those under forty to realize that there was ever a time when a man was nothing but a suit of clothes. ... Brando's appearance on stage, as Stanley, in a torn sweaty T-shirt, was an earthquake.") The leading man in Fugitive Kind is just a suit of clothes, but Glory's passion for him is still the engine of her misfortune, as well as a primal theme of everything Williams went on to write.

Scott Coopwood gives a fine, hard-boiled performance as Terry, even if his Southern accent lacks conviction. Emily Ackerman is clean, sharp, and emotional as Glory, without melting into sap, which would be easy to do. Their relationship seems pale at first, but catches fire in the second act, so that the climactic scene -- and therefore the play -- comes off. Sankowich directs his huge cast with a sensitive, expert hand. Ed Sarafian is a magisterial Mr. Gwendlebaum, Glory's adoptive father and proprietor of the flophouse; Michael Ray Wisely also gives a brilliant speech as Chuck, the caretaker, drinking cheap whiskey when he really wants a taste of Bertha's snow. "I'm havin' a wonderful time!" he says, with a drunken little jump, in the depths of a sad New Year's Eve.

Fugitive Kind had a two-night production in 1937 with an amateur group called the Mummers Theatre in St. Louis, so Marin gets away with calling its production a "professional world premiere." Williams apparently stuffed the play in a drawer after the Mummers performance and mined its pages for scrap. Even now, after a round of editing by the New Directions publishing house in 2001, for a book, and again by Sankowich for this show, the play clocks in at 2 1/2 meandering hours. Williams thought of too many characters and too many themes. 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.


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