It's initially surprising to see Rude Guerrilla—a theater company that's long reveled in radically political, bloodily visceral and hypersexual theatrical fare—mounting five one-acts by Tennessee Williams. Sure, Williams was an openly gay playwright and his nearly 50 plays cover everything from castration to cannibalism. But the Williams the American public has long adored is the genteel Southern writer of The Glass Menagerie and other plays featuring faded Southern belles, desperate misfits and wandering souls.
Even his most overtly sexual Big Play, A Streetcar Named Desire,a smoldering pot of lust and yearning, may have broken taboos in 1947, but seems mild by today's standards. But there's another Tennessee Williams that has long been obscured by both his commercial blockbusters and his public image of a long-suffering gay artist whose final years were spent in relative obscurity and full-fledged alcoholism. It's the Williams who wrote plays about Alabama coal miners, prison injustice, corrupt munitions makers, revolutionary zealots and terrorist bombers.
"He [came of age] in the 1930s, and, like a lot of writers, he [had] Socialist leanings," said Michael David Fox, one of the five directors responsible for Rude Guerrilla's night of Williams' one-acts, The Long Goodbye."And his career really took off around the time of the Red Scare. He was one of the few openly gay artists in America, and he [espoused] left-wing politics, so just as his sexuality was somewhat coded in the earlier plays, his politics were also coded."
The five plays on the bill all explore different themes and styles. Two seem like miniature prototypes for Menagerieand Streetcar,but two others—The Municipal Abattoir,in which a frustrated revolutionary contemplates assassinating a fascist president, and Demolition Downtown, a surreal Brazil-likesatire on revolutionaries and middle-class types clinging to their illusions—are not typical Williams.
"I can't believe he really wrote those plays," said Sharyn Case, who directs the titular one-act, The LongGoodbye. "They are so unlike anything else I've ever read of his." The plays share an arc—moving from the more personal, introspective plays commonly associated with Williams to his more explicitly political writings—and one overriding concern, according to Fox: Williams' "love of outsiders and outcasts. He knew what it was like to be an outsider and he felt a connection with others. He loved hurt people."
They also embody Williams' greatest gift and his major contribution to American theater: his sense of poetry. "He was a great articulator of pain and loss, but unlike other writers who might write [issue plays], he never romanticized suffering," said Fox. "He was much more incisive and always looking for a greater truth. He was a legitimate poet of the theater."
And here he is.
THE LONG GOODBYE: ONE-ACTS BY TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, EMPIRE THEATER, 200 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 547-4688. OPENS FRI. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 P.M. THROUGH AUG. 5. $10-$18.