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An Atmosphere Play on Clark Street

Washington Shakespeare Company mounts late Tennessee Williams piece.

Tennessee Williams’ 1972 drama, "Small Craft Warnings" is all about the atmosphere you would expect in a seedy bar along the coast of California. It is not so much about plot as it is about the feeling of the place and the types of people who congregate there. To create that atmosphere, director Jay Hardee and his co-designer Karen J. Sugrue stage the play not in the theater at the Clark Street Playhouse, but in the lobby which they turn into a dive, complete with a cash bar for the audience members.

With all the theatrical devices at their command, they really do make you feel you are in "Monk’s Place" somewhere along the Pacific Coast Highway where the locals while away the evening as a storm threatens outside. Inside the lights are low and smoke is thick, thanks more to stage mist than to cigarette smoking.

On the juke box, the choices include all the songs you might expect of that time and that place plus one surprising addition: Jascha Heifetz playing Tchaikovsky's "Serenade Melancholique" provides the soulful near mourning feel that at least one of the ladies in the bar covets.

While there is not much of a plot to the play, the characters are all intriguing as brought to life by a talented cast. There’s John C Bailey as the "Monk" who lets his patrons argue all they want but draws the line when they get too close to violence. Kari Ginsburg is the hot tempered woman who has just about had it with her swaggering sex object, played with vigor by James Finley. Joe Palka is a doctor drowning his memories of cases not cured in glass after glass of brandy only to be called off to deliver a baby. ("Give me one more brandy to steady my hands" he says.)

Into the mix comes Christopher Henley as one of Tennessee Williams’ flaming gay characters, a minor movie mogul with his young companion of the moment, Thomas Wood. Their break up provides some of the few plot-driven moments of this atmosphere play.

Before the play even gets started the audience is immersed in the atmosphere of the evening. Bailey as "Monk" is already behind the bar and Palka is already downing brandies. Mundy Spears, who plays a young woman with a deep psychological problem, and Brian Crane who hovers about her for most of the play as an almost equally disturbed would-be partner, are already interacting among the tables. Indeed, Crane’s behavior in the bar before the play actually gets under way provides a clue about that relationship.

This being Tennessee Williams, sex and sexual compulsions play a part in the evening so audiences should expect a few moments that would not be appropriate for younger people. There is a brief flash of buttocks and a few simulated sex acts but Hardee avoids placing too much reliance on these moments. Instead, it is the overall atmosphere of a night in a seedy spot that marks this production.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, www.PotomacStages.com. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com. </i>