Tennessee Williams returns to Slipstream with ‘The Gentleman Caller’
FERNDALE, Mich.— The current production at Slipstream Theatre Initiative — Philip Dawkins’ The Gentleman Caller — is a case study in what theatre can do when it’s done well. This play is staged on a simple set, with no lighting effects, no sound design, and nothing to fall back on but the powerful performances of two actors who squeeze all the humor, heartache and haunting truth out of a tightly crafted script.
Dawkins’ play is based on an encounter between two iconic American playwrights, Tennessee Williams (Bailey Boudreau) and William Inge (Brenton Herwat). The play is set in 1944. Williams is about to set the theatre world on fire with The Glass Menagerie, and Dawkins effectively leans into autobiographical elements of that play to great effect. Indeed, The Gentleman Caller was the original title for The Glass Menagerie, and Dawkins borrows the memory-play format by having Tennessee Williams himself provide the prologue and epilogue.
As the play opens, Williams has returned home to St. Louis, awaiting the premiere of his play in Chicago the week after Christmas. The only way he can cope with his overbearing mother and beloved but troubled sister is to stay inebriated and stay away. He has agreed to do an interview with the hometown St. Louis paper, something he generally loathes, but is hoping for a positive article to appease his family and promote the new play. His capricious, self-destructive tendencies don’t help. Luckily for theatre history, the art critic for the St. Louis paper is William Inge.
The encounter is an historical fact. The exchange as scripted by Dawkins is pure magic.
The show is directed by Kaitlyn Valor Bourque, who has frequently appeared on the Slipstream stage as an actor. One of the best things about this Slipstream Theatre Initiative show is that it brings back Bailey Boudreau in the role of Tennessee Williams. Boudreau won the 2018 Wilde Award for Best Actor, playing the title role in A Night of Stars With Tennessee Williams by Maxim Vinogradov. In The Gentleman Caller, Boudreau gives us a Williams who is at his most powerful precisely when he is most vulnerable. His wit and insight, his ability to snatch truth out of mendacity, his keen sensitivity and feigned nonchalance make him irresistible.
He recognizes in Inge a fellow refugee, sheltering against a cruel, unforgiving heterosexual world. But Inge is both consumed and repulsed by his own sexual orientation. Having been carefully taught by his mother that sex is little more than a filthy act necessary for human reproduction, Inge is filled with self-loathing. Where Tennessee Williams wears his heart on his sleeve, Inge keeps it in a tightly clenched fist. There is a palpable tension between these two men, who seem both attracted to each other and repulsed, as if by a magnetic switch.
Act One recounts the hilarious, uncomfortable and alcohol-soaked first encounter between the two men. Williams’ gift for sparkling conversation and his skill as a raconteur are given full play in Dawkins’ brilliant dialog. And though Inge is supposed to be driving the interview, he is quickly put on the defense by Williams’ uninhibited interest. Williams not only outs Inge, but unearths an even bigger secret – that Inge longs to be a successful playwright. Inge confesses that he cannot imagine surviving the criticism that is sure to follow any artist. At the end of Act One, Williams has managed to get hold of the manuscript for Inge’s play and agrees to give it a critical read.
Act Two picks up the story in Chicago, New Year’s Eve, where Inge has accepted Williams’ invitation to review The Glass Menagerie. Williams is, of course, pleased that the play is a vast success but is not sure how to handle all of the celebrity. Inge, having just experienced the cruel beauty of The Glass Menagerie and understanding its biographical nature, is a bit awestruck. Inge despairs of ever achieving that kind of power in his own work, but is desperate to know if Williams has read his script. Suffering from deep depression, Inge believes that success as a playwright will bring him happiness. Williams knows it is simply a stay of execution, but one to be relentlessly pursued.
The tango that unfolds takes us to a dark place in which Inge reveals the source of his demons – an experience from his youth that is more disturbing than anything even Williams could imagine. A warning here to patrons – this monolog is visceral and unsettling – packing a gut punch that not everyone is equal to. That said, the performance between Boudreau and Herwat is flawless. And in the final epilog, Boudreau brings strength and anger to Williams’ defense of the lives they lived and the struggles they kept hidden as gay men – an imagined response to those who would shame them for not being champions of a cause that knew only martyrs.
The Gentleman Caller is a remarkable tour de force. It provokes constant laughter. And for all its pain, there is also hopefulness and beauty. Near the end of the play, Williams tells Inge that he’s working on a play about a woman named Blanche and, for all his writing, he’s still not sure what it’s about. Before Streetcar Named Desire took shape, this play suggests that Williams fully understood the transformative power of a simple act of kindness. It’s reason enough for fans of American theatre to see it. Moreover, for anyone who has a love for words, superior storytelling, and stirring acting, this is a play that demands to be seen.