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Karma Chameleons

Exiles Try Not to Get What's Coming to Them in The Night of the Iguana

By John Barnard | Posted 4/28/2004

The Night of the Iguana

At the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre through May 22

At the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre through May 22

The critic Thomas Adler has described The Night of the Iguana as "Beckettian"--a portrayal of a kind of "endurance beyond endurance," and "a potent image of humankind's condition after the fall." The thematic center of the play is surely the existential struggle to persist, to avoid "cracking up" and taking the suicidal "long swim to China." The whole thing derives its power from this sort of tension, between faith and doubt, solipsism and the need for human contact, and what Shannon, the defrocked Anglican minister at the center of the conflict, calls the "fantastic level," where we can't go on, and the "realistic level," where we must. Tennessee Williams referred to Iguana, which contains a great deal of autobiographical investigation, as "more of a dramatic poem than a play . . . bound to rest on metaphorical ways of expression." Indeed, you might describe it by way of the symbol of the trapped iguana itself, which haunts the scenario from just offstage--another "one of God's creatures at the end of the rope."

The story arises from a convergence of exiles, both literal and figurative, at the Costa Verde Hotel on the west coast of Mexico. Shannon (Michael R. Nichols), who's been "locked out" of his church for "fornication and heresy . . . in the same week," now leads tours around Mexico. He hijacks his current group--an insufferable klatsch of Baptist schoolteachers--and brings them to the hotel, where he comes into contact with Maxine (Sherrionne Brown), the lusty widow; Hannah (Heather Fansgrüd), the angelic figure who guides him through his crisis; and Nonno (Denis Latkowski), Hannah's ancient grandfather, a "minor poet" groping for one last moment of inspiration. Williams titled an early draft "Two Acts of Grace," and the driving force of the play is redemption--not through metaphysics or abstract spiritualism, but through gritty, realistic, corporeal human contact.

The current production at the Spotlighters is at times compelling, but often just over the top. Successful execution of a role like Shannon, in which the character necessarily teeters on the verge of self-indulgence, seems to require greater attention to nuance than Nichols brings to the part. His concentration on the blustery, violent aspects of Shannon's character comes at the expense of much of the ironic self-effacement and latent dignity that make Shannon a candidate for redemption at all. Brown's Maxine is similarly one-dimensional, so focused on her cackling cattiness that her own suffering, desire, loneliness, and need all fail to rise to the surface. Like Nichols' Shannon, this Maxine comes across as annoying, self-obsessed, and insensitive, rather than sympathetic.

The oddest character interpretation, though, was Latkowski's Nonno. He plays the old man, trying desperately to hold on to his faculties, as an opportunity for farcical comic relief. Nonno's charming witticisms, which would seem to be evidence of a functioning intellect, become simple buffoonery, which serves to reduce the tension, and thus the tragic energy, of his particular breakdown. In the end, as he recites his finally completed poem, we witness not the transcendent moment of the mind's final act, but the blubbering, hyper-emotional ejaculations of a doddering fool.

All of this, however, is itself redeemed by Fansgrüd. She is absolutely convincing as the ethereal Hannah, exuding the kind of earnestness that cynical people can't help but interpret as con artistry. This simple, unguarded ingenuousness is what gives her compassionate response to Shannon's crisis, and her general assessment of "humankind's condition after the fall"--and, thus, the play's overall resolution--their resonant power.

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