I need to be up front about the fact that I’m not as familiar with Tennessee Williams as I should be. And this is triply shameful: I majored in English in college; I grew up in the South; I’m queer. But here I am, reviewing Tennessee Williams’ Battle of Angels. Fortunately, the director of this play (Tom Mitchell) is an expert. This is the fifth early play by Williams that he’s directed for the Department of Theatre, so we’re in good hands.
Battle of Angels is Williams’ first professional play. And though it was not appreciated in its own time, it was — in Mitchell’s words — the “true beginning” of Williams’ career (“Director’s Note” 5). Indeed, according to Mitchell, there are echoes of Battle of Angels in two of Williams’ later plays: Orpheus Descending (which I’ve neither seen nor read) and Fugitive Kind (which I have).
I don’t dislike Tennessee Williams, but I cannot say that I’m a fan, not like I am of other playwrights like Shakespeare, Wilde, Kushner, the ancient Greeks, or the Absurdists. This is not because I don’t recognize genius when I’m reading or watching it. I do, and Williams is absolutely a genius. He wrote compelling stories and created broken characters that have depth, certainly. But the themes that Williams employs lean toward topics and personalities that annoy me: southern culture; spiteful, ignorant, gossipy women (usually secondary characters); unstable, needy, semi-hysterical heroines who inevitably launch into maddening diatribes (viz., Blanch, Maggie, Amanda, Catharine); and unsympathetic, troubled, casually violent men. That being said, Williams’ plays and chosen genre (Southern Gothicism) often contain themes that I do enjoy: families in crisis, magical realism, tragic endings, and gripping conversations on sexism, homophobia, and racism. So while I don’t usually seek him out, I don’t avoid him either.
Battle of Angels covers much of the familiar territory discussed above. At the center of the story is Myra Torrence. Myra is married to Jabe, who is dying of cancer. Jabe owns a mercantile store, and Myra’s days revolve around managing it, caring for Jabe, and trying to tune out the catty, complaining gossip of the townswomen who are her regular customers. Myra is lonely, exhausted, depressed, clearly waiting for her husband to die, and possibly addicted to sleeping pills. And then Val Xavier enters her life. Val is a transient, an imaginative, misunderstood man who is running from a past that embarrasses and frightens him. Val can’t seem to keep his hands off women, whether he’s “unintentionally” tempting them, hitting them, or sleeping with them. Both he and Myra want more from life than what they have, but neither knows how to go about finding their way out of their current situation. What they can’t admit, to themselves or to each other, is that their present circumstances are a consequence of their own bad decisions. And when the past confronts them, neither is emotionally equipped to face it.
I would not have enjoyed this play as much as I did if not for the stellar cast and set direction. As I walked into the Studio Theatre, I couldn’t remember a time when I’d seen it more elaborately decorated. Moon Jung Kim and Paul Callahan are to be applauded. They used every inch of the studio’s small space, and they somehow managed to make it look simultaneously roomy and smothering.
Battle of Angels has quite a large cast, so I won’t attempt to discuss every member; however, three of the actors deserve mention. Michelle Grube plays Cassandra Whiteside, the town’s fallen woman. Grube is exceptional at revealing Cassandra’s complexity of character. This role is important, in that it must stand apart from the other townswomen, and not just because Cassandra is “slutty.” Grube clearly understands this, and — because of her intelligent and touching performance — she saves Cassandra from being one-dimensional.
I was already familiar with Monica Lopez from having enjoyed her in several other plays at the Krannert Center, so I looked forward seeing her again. She didn’t disappoint. I don’t envy actresses who’ve taken on the task of playing an iconic heroine in a Tennessee Williams play. But Lopez’s Myra is exactly what fans of Williams should expect of their female lead: frightened, volatile, sensual, and, somehow, weak and strong at the same time. And while there are occasions that Lopez’s performance might be a little over-the-top, these are few and far between, and I admit that I’m not enough of a Tennessee Williams aficionado to feel completely confident mentioning this minor quibble.
Val Xavier’s appearance in the story saved the play for me, and this is because Christopher Sheard is performing the role. I’ve complimented Sheard’s talent previously on this site, but never in detail. I’ll remedy that here. As Sheard entered the store, he took control of the stage, and for the rest of the night he never let it go. One reason that Sheard is so enjoyable to watch is that he doesn’t make the mistake that many stage actors do: He doesn’t overemphasize his lines; he doesn’t exaggerate his body movements; he isn’t theatrical. Also, he never loses sight of where he is in the story. Even when nothing happening on stage has anything to do with him, even when all eyes are elsewhere, Sheard never even slightly drops character. He is a good actor because he can speak his lines convincingly and employ realistic body language … of course he can. He is an extraordinarily good actor because he is able to portray subtle emotions with his eyes, with a little chuckle, or a slight, yet convincing tremble in his voice when remembering a past torment. He’s completely present on the stage, like he doesn’t even know anyone else is watching. For me, Val Xavier is the only truly interesting character in Battle of Angels and that’s in large part due to Sheard’s representation of him.
I wish I could discuss all of the actors appearing in this play, because (though I’ve never acted myself) it doesn’t take experience in the craft to know that all of the roles in Battle of Angels are challenging ones, especially those of the townswomen. And even those playing small roles performed them with enthusiasm and respect. The talent in this entire cast is exceptional.
Hilariously shrewish gossips, sullen rednecks, mysterious conjurers, gun-toting lawmen and citizens alike … this play — Tennessee Williams’ first sponsored by the Theater Guild — shouldn’t be missed, especially by fans. Those familiar with Williams will recognize images and themes that turn up again in several of his later works. And you will enjoy some of the best actors that the University Department of Theatre has to offer. Enjoy!
Wednesday–Saturday, November 2–5, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, November 6, 3:00 p.m.