A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur Review
The familiar is both a blessing and curse in the lovingly mounted but gently discouraging production of “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur,” a lesser-known work by Tennessee Williams receiving its first New York production since 1979.
Presented by La Femme Theatre Productions at the Theatre at St. Clements, “Creve Coeur,” directed by Austin Pendleton, chronicles a chaotic afternoon in a crowded apartment in the less fashionable section of St. Louis. Dorothea, a high school civics teacher longing for a life of wedded bliss, rents a room from the matronly, idealistic Bodie, who is determined to pair her attractive roommate with her twin brother, Buddy. But Dorothea has her sights set on Ralph Ellis, the handsome principal of her school, with whom she recently went on a passionate date, and is spending her Sunday waiting by the phone for a promised call despite Bodey’s hopes for the three to enjoy a picnic at the nearby titular park.
The affection, and the differences between the two women are clear, never more so than when Dorothea lustfully describes her encounter with Mr. Ellis and declares, says, “My life must include romance,” to which Bodey eagerly responds, “Did I tell you Buddy has made a down payment on a Buick?”
The women’s domestic morning is soon interrupted by the arrival of Dorothea’s colleague Helena, who appears seeking Dorothea’s share of deposit on a fashionable apartment in an upscale part of town. Also unmarried, the middle-aged Helena is adamant that this new residence will advance her on the social ladder, and she intends for Dorothea to rise with her. But Dorothea has not informed Bodey of her plans, which she openly confesses she will abandon if Mr. Ellis proposes marriage. This unlikely trio is joined by Sophie Gluck, Bodey’s neighbor grieving the recent death of her mother.
Williams’ script paints a merciless portrait of each member of this quartet struggling to fend off loneliness and carve out a life in a society and economy hardly welcoming to unmarried women.Bodie’s child-like conviction that Dorothea and her brother will fall in love is both endearing and annoying, especially after Dorothea candidly informs her roommate she is not attracted to the reportedly overweight, beer-drinking Buddy. Dorothea, whom we first meet performing her daily calisthenics routine while anxiously inquiring if the hard-of-hearing Bodey could have missed the phone ringing, is apparently unable to imagine a future without a man by her side. The imperious and well-preserved Helena foresees a series of bridge games and society teas at her stylish new apartment, to which Dorothea only intends to move in order to properly entertain men, while the distraught Sophie arrives at Bodey’s door for daily sessions of coffee and crying.
While these characters could easily devolve into caricatures of lonely women in the hands of lesser-skilled actors, the talents of this ensemble portray them as both sympathetic and intriguing. Played by the acclaimed comedic actress Kristine Nielsen, Bodey’s flustered bustling about her crowded, chaotic apartment (designed and lit by Harry Feiner), conveys her determined optimism as well as glimpses of the fearful vulnerability lurking underneath the cheerful preparation of fried chicken and deviled eggs. As befits a Williams woman, even Bodey attempts to deny reality by refusing to wear her hearing aid and, after Dorothea convinces her to don it, covering it with a gaudy artificial flower.
To those familiar with the playwright’s work, Dorothea, played by Jean Lichty, may inspire thoughts of another well-known character by Williams, Blanche DuBois from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Quietly panicked as she longs for and expects rescue from a man, prone to panic attacks – and then pills and sherry, drunk straight from the bottle – Dorothea could be dismissed as a typical character from the Williams canon. She even dresses like Blanche, stumbling about in sheer flowing negligee as she incoherently recalls a past romance and, later, a ruffled pink and white dress that Helena scornfully dismisses as suitable for a teenager. (Beth Goldenberg’s period-perfect costumes are well-suited to each character.)
Annette O’Toole’s Helena teeters on the edge of overexaggeration, as she strides into Bodey’s apartment and proceeds to insult everything, and everyone, in it. Arrogant and exacting, she seems to exist only as hard angles and sharp edges. Her classism and snobbery are difficult to endure, and, as the intermissionless performance progresses, one must probe deeply to understand her merciless focus – unmarried and middle-aged, it’s clear if she doesn’t build a better life for herself, no one else will.
Both Dorothea and Helena recoil from the openly miserable Sophie, brought to life with gentle humor and subtlety by Polly McKie. Dressed in a shapeless nightgown as she shuffles for room to room,Bodie’s neighbor might be the only woman onstage honestly expressing her emotions and loneliness but to the teachers, she personifies a future they are desperately attempting to avoid.
How Williams felt about these women is unclear: does bluntly showing them at their most disorganized and desperate educate the audience how unkind the world was to single women in the 1930s? Is he mocking their circumstances and their inability to escape them or honestly face their futures? The play’s conclusion, which shows Dorothea taking ownership of her life – although motivated by grief and despair – is neither a happy nor a tragic conclusion. The show would have benefited from a clearer focus and more decisive approach from both the playwright and director.