South Camden Theatre Company concludes its season — dedicated entirely to Tennessee Williams' centenary — with his 1961 play The Night of the Iguana. It's a fine capper; what's a better send-off than a sultry south-of-the-border evening filled with sex, liquor, and a nervous breakdown or two?
When John Huston filmed the drama in 1964, the offscreen shenanigans of its stars — Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr among them — earned Puerto Vallarta a reputation as el centro de amor long before the Love Boat ever docked there. The story at its core is equally lusty, if more tragic, but Williams doles out pathos and humor as liberally as widowed hotelier Maxine (Nicole DeRosa Kukaitis) dispenses complimentary rum-cocos to favored guests. Consider this bit of stage direction regarding one of Maxine's native boy toys: "Pancho … reappears, sucking a juicy peeled mango — its juice running down his chin onto his throat."
Director Randall McCann and his team of designers get all the play's juices flowing, from Robert Bingaman's colorful hacienda-and-vines set to Andrew Cowles' sun-drenched lighting, to Pamela Dollak's rumpled, travel-weary costumes. Characters, when they aren't the center of attention, lounge onstage, languid and bemused, enjoying the show.
And what a show it is. Disgraced Rev. Lawrence Shannon (Sean Close), locked out of his church for bad behavior, now leads bus tours, and parks one full of Texas church ladies at Maxine's, where he knows he can hide from the accusations of an angry matron and her underage charge. After all, it's 1940, and a family of vacationing Nazis has already found shelter there. Close's Shannon occasionally veers nearer to whiny than high-strung, but he's a lanky whirlwind of manic energy, and he never lets up once for the show's entire 2½ hours.
Dollak is Hannah, the quick-sketch artist and aging ingenue who arrives at Maxine's dead broke, with her elderly grandfather (Tom Juarez), an itinerant poet working on his final verse. Kukaitis and Dollak send off sparks as their characters vie for Shannon's attentions, turning their desperation on one another. Kukaitis is a sharp, tough Maxine (though she tends to let her lines trail off), and we watch as Dollak's Hannah visibly drains an ever shallower well of internal composure. Even if her calm begins to flatline during the production's final half-hour, there are enough other distractions — raucous Germans, shirtless young men, Grandpa mumbling half-remembered stanzas — to keep the human condition, and the way it leaves everyone tugging like trapped iguanas at the ends of their ropes, center stage.
The Night of the Iguana
Through May 6 at South Camden Theatre Company, 1739 Ferry Ave., Camden. Tickets: $15. Information: 866-811-4111 or www.southcamdentheatre.org