November 5 saw the inaugural performance of the Touchmark Theatre Company in the 2-year-old River Run Centre in Guelph. Producing Artistic Director, Doug Beattie (director of all the Wingfield plays), chose Tennessee Williams' last play, Kingdom of Earth, to introduce his new company to the area. Everything about the production suggests that the River Run Centre has brought off a real coup by designating Touchmark as its resident professional theatre company. The production has the same intensity and high level of quality as a Soulpepper production in Toronto.
Kingdom of Earth is Williams' 1975 revision of his 1968 failure The Seven Descents of Myrtle (and with a title like that, no wonder!). In cutting more than half an hour of dialogue from the earlier play, Williams' has created a taut, three-person play of mounting tension that fully engages the viewer emotionally and intellectually. Beattie states in the program that he thinks Kingdom of Earth is a "hidden gem" and his production certainly convinced me he is right.
The play concerns Lot Ravenstock (Eric Woolfe), who brings his bride of 48 hours, Myrtle (Patricia Yeatman), to his family home on a Mississippi delta threatened with immanent flooding. Known to Lot, but not to his wife, is that the house is already inhabited by his grim and seemingly dangerous half-brother, Chicken (Paul Essiembre). What transpires is a tale of revenge between the two half-brothers and a struggle for survival in the threatened "kingdom of earth" that the house represents.
As Lot, Eric Woolfe expertly embodies what is surely Williams'
own negative self-portrait--a man who is, weak, self-absorbed
and obsessed with his dead mother. His descent into a kind of
morbid solipsism through the course of the play is quite chilling.
Lot seems also to represent the playwright passively observing
the drama he has created by bringing Chicken
and Myrtle together. As Chicken, Paul Essiembre gives what is one of the finest performances I have seen on stage this year in Ontario. In the first half of the play when his character is mostly silent or incommunicative, Essiembre displays such a combination of repressed rage, sexuality and violence that when he finally does speak and interact with the others there's a palpable sense of danger in the air. As Myrtle, a down-on-her-luck burlesque entertainer, Patricia Yeatman gives a
wonderfully believable performance as a woman who has somehow managed to maintain a sense of innocence and decency despite all the indignities she has had to suffer and continues to suffer in the play.
The set by Dennis Horn captures the sense of the real world gone askew in its sloping lines, and the soundscape of rain, storm and noise of the impending flood is superb. Doug Beattie's direction gives the play a very natural flow which, like the play's central metaphor of the flood, gradually and inevitably increases in tension up to the very end.
Anyone with an interest in Tennessee Williams and a night of very powerful theatre should not miss this production.