“There are three kinds of people in the world,” gentleman caller Jim Delaney (Eddie Orton) explains. Prompted by the fretfully vivacious Amanda Wingfield (Trudi Boatwright) Delaney elaborates. The three kinds of people are: 1) Workhorses, 2) Drivers and 3) The Dreamy type. The Workhorses work themselves to the bone, the Drivers are the managers taking the reins and the Dreamy types
slow things down for everybody.
This exchange is in The Pretty Trap, when Jim comes to the Wingfield’s house in order to be set up with demure daughter Laura (Jessica Redmayne). This is the first of two one-act plays in Project Hysteria, a Tennessee Williams double feature put on for the Poppyseed Festival.
Taking place in the same setting, both plays The Pretty Trap and Interior: Panic follow one another with no intermission. Though equally powerful pieces which would work as standalones, director Alister Smith chooses to blend the two, having all the players stay on the borders of the stage even after they’re finished, the actors using (and abusing) the same set pieces. As a result, themes intermingle and carry over, creating two interconnected performances.
Delaney’s speech about the three kinds of people is at work in both plays. Characters either represent one type or a combination of several. The result sees the characters clash, forced to make things work under the same roof. They’re unable to keep their troubled pasts from creeping to the surface and—due to the impoverished social circumstances of 1930s America—they’re trapped in the simmering emotional crucible they’ve created.
The Pretty Trap is first, introducing us to Smith’s lavish stage design, perfectly complimented by Chloe Greaves’ always excellent costume design, whose inspired costuming never fails to dazzle. The weathered sprit of Tennessee Williams is evoked here, from the bald yellow lights dangling from the ceiling (lighting design by Daniel Chapman), the crumpled blankets on the beds, to the old fashioned icebox in the kitchen. Torn pages from various novels litter the stage floor, creating everlasting disarray. Amanda, in an elegant dress, fusses all over the stage, cleaning things up and adjusting cutlery. Occasional bursts of 20s jazz tunes help to evoke the time period.
Generally viewed as a sketch of Williams’ more well-known work, The Glass Menagerie, The Pretty Trap begins roughly in the middle of that play, with brother Tom Wingfield (Damien Harrison) having invited over a work friend he and Amanda intend to set up with Laura. In TGM we’re given a great deal of background before this dinner, fleshing out the tensions between Tom the Dreamer and his Workhorse mother, as well as Laura’s severe depression and a bit more about the disappeared father who “fell in love with long distance”. TPT throws us in the middle of all this and it’s through the performances and stage directions that we infer more details.
As a character, Tom is underutilised but Harrison’s performance is suitable. He shrugs off his mother’s bickering with a “whaddaya gonna do” kind of smirk, mostly hanging in the background while the action unfolds. Orton’s Jim is a dapper fellow whose tie is as tightly fastened as his manner is gentlemanly. At first his motives appear unclear, but he proves himself to be a fine antidote to Laura’s crippled emotional state.
Boatwright’s Wingfield is a fiery performance that fully embodies the character. Reading Williams’ words is pleasurable, but seeing them performed by an actor as talented as Boatwright is an invigorating experience. Spot on with the Southern accent, Boatwright finds the intricate balance between a controlling Southern Belle and heartbroken widow who wants what’s best for her children.
As Laura, Redmayne clearly conveys her character’s misery, but she doesn’t quite delve deep enough to find the source of her character’s gloom. She more or less mopes like a sullen teenager until the final scene, when Laura’s spirits pick up as she dances by candlelight with Jim. Here Redmayne does a good job showing the transformation.
We’re given little more than a blackout before the next play begins—no room for applause—keeping us firmly ensconced in Williams’ world. An early sketch of A Streetcar Named Desire, the second part of Project Hysteria is a chaotic sliver of the play, beginning with Blanche Shannon (Annie Last) in the throes of a breakdown. Sister Grace (Fleur Murphy) is trying to keep her calm. Here the titular “interior” seems to refer to the interior of Blanche’s mind, as we’re given a harrowing look at all the torment she’s suffering, cooped up in the impoverished home.
Last’s Blanche is a whirlwind performance of internal conflicts and shuddering anxiety attacks. Last plays Blanche with such fierce conviction to her madness it feels uncomfortable just to watch her—it’s as if she has insects crawling around inside her, pinching and chewing on her nerves. Grace says to Blanche that she used to admire her big sister so much, yet now she can’t stand to look at her. Murphy is a subtle actor, carrying her pregnant belly carefully and feigning patience with her sister. When she says this line it’s loaded with fear—perfectly complimented by the ghastly look in Blanche’s eyes.
Vaughn Rae and Luke Cadden play Jack (a Stanley type) and George respectively, though their roles are sidelined and often used to represent Blanche’s inner torment. Interior: Panic is an excellent study in hysteria and mental torment, though it adds little insight to the already spectacular A Streetcar Named Desire. Beyond Grace’s eventual acceptance of her sister’s anguish there’s little development or resolution—though wonderfully performed and directed, this sketch feels much less satisfying than the first piece.
Smith and Co. have done a tremendous job bringing the hardly performed early works of Tennessee Williams to the stage. Such dedication to the craft from both cast and crew provides a thoroughly entertaining evening, even if the material is occasionally underwhelming. It’s more than enough to introduce anyone to Williams’ work, reminding us why we shouldn’t just read the classics—we need to see them performed.