Few who read Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” can forget the story of Tom Wingfield, an aspiring poet frustrated by his shoe warehouse job and the necessity to support his mother and mentally challenged older sister Laura. Tom acts like the narrator and protagonist of the play who introduces the story to the audience, and because it’s based on his memory, Tom cautions the audience that what they see may not be precisely what happened.
Along with Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, Williams is considered among the three best playwrights of 20th-century American drama. In “The Glass Menagerie,” a “memory play” intensely drawn from his own private nightmares, Williams uses the “unreliable narrator” technique, which is a modernist literary convention made famous by drama critic Wayne Booth in the early 1960s. Though, in fact, the technique has been around as long as literature has been.
“The Glass Menagerie,” which featured Laurette Taylor in the role of Amanda Wingfield [Tom’s mother], premiered in 1944 in Chicago as a tryout play. Thanks to critics Ashton Stevens and Claudia Cassidy, who championed it and helped it move to Broadway, Williams, with his sense of lyricism and innovative drama, went on to become a major force in the postwar American theater, with hits like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” starring Burl Ives.
“We know for a fact that both men had been at that performance of “The Glass Menagerie” in 1944,” said William Hayes, artistic director of Palm Beach Dramaworks and director of “Billy and Me.” The other man he’s referring to is William Inge, renown playwright and author of hit shows including “Picnic,” which Hayes directed in 2015 for Dramaworks. “They met, and eventually Tennessee Williams introduced his agent, Audrey Wood, to Inge.”
Flash back to 2015. Hayes is busy researching “Picnic.” In the process of learning more about Inge, an idea percolates in his mind: a story about the relationship between two of America’s greatest playwrights, Tennessee Williams and William Inge. Hayes tries to imagine the complications of friendship. And he can’t get it out of his head. “I was surprised that no one had ever written about this relationship and this friendship, and so I became obsessed with it!”
Hayes shares his idea with his friend and Wall Street Journal drama critic, Terry Teachout. “Bill said to me, ‘Do you suppose that there is a play in the relationship between William Inge and Tennessee Williams?’ And I was like the cowboy at the rodeo, going Woo Ha!” Teachout immediately falls in love with the storyline. Yet he feels it’s ironic, but fitting, for a drama critic to be writing a play about Inge, who was a drama critic for the Chicago Tribune, before he became a playwright.
“Obviously because I am a drama critic, I know a lot about these two guys. And I’m particularly interested in Inge. I’ve been an advocate for Inge at the Wall Street Journal, doing reviews as there’s been a revival of his works. And I knew, as Bill knew, that they had been friends, but had also had a very turbulent relationship.” Hmmm…turbulence, the thing that award-winning stories are made of.
“Billy and Me” is a tinderbox of a play, blazing with wit. Teachout has constructed a play that contains all the particulars necessary to understand who the playwrights [Williams and Inge] really were. As he tells it, this is not a bio play like Walk the Line, and it’s not the Tennessee Williams story. It’s a play about two very gifted, but very unhappy men, who are trying to figure out who they are, how to lead their lives, and what to do when things go wrong.
Teachout is exhilaratingly clever in that he uses the same “unreliable narrator” modernist literary convention as Tennessee Williams did with his play “The Glass Menagerie.” In Act I, the audience is introduced to an aged Williams waiting for…death, of all things, in his room at the Hotel Elysee on East 54th Street in New York City, era 1983.
Nicholas Richberg, who last appeared in PBD’s 1776, and whose bio contains an impressive list of regional credits and awards, brilliantly plays the role of Tennessee Williams. Rich berg steals the show with his embodiment of Williams, a man frightened by success, though he authored more than 24 full-length plays—a continual flow from the stage to the screen—and a record unequaled by any of his contemporaries.
Richberg’s portrayal of Williams is superb. He shows the playwright’s brilliance and faults, including all his anguishes and anxieties. A man torn by his memories—an absent father, an overprotective mother, and a frail older sister named Rose. He also shows Williams as a gay man who shows great openness about who and what he is, though for all his bravado, he is also extremely vulnerable to the demands affronted by directors, actresses, the public, as well as his critics.
Right from the start in Act I, Williams begins telling the story of “Billy and Me,” but cautions the audience that what they see may not be precisely what happened. And that’s when we’re quickly transported back in time to Williams’ first memory of Billy.
It is New Year’s Eve, 1944. A 33-year old Williams is very upset with the way “The Glass Menagerie” is going, most especially with the performance of Laurette Taylor, the actress who plays Amanda. She’s visibly drunk onstage, and if the play fails, it won’t be catapulted to Broadway. By this time, William Inge [Tom Wahl] and Tennessee Williams have already met. Inge had interviewed Tennessee Williams, who was unknown at the time. The two men had hit it off, and had spent a little time together, on and off for weeks. In fact, meeting Williams changed Inge’s life, so much that it inspired him to pursue playwriting after so many failed attempts.
I love how Palm Beach Dramaworks describes “Billy and Me” as “a work of fiction, freely based on fact.” In one of my favorite scenes in Act I, which takes place in a bar in Chicago, the playwright, through a brilliantly scripted dialogue between the two leading characters, introduces a dance that curiously hints at an intimacy between Williams and Inge that’s never been truly disclosed, leaving the audience to interpret it for themselves.
It is in this scene, where Inge finally comes out of his deep closet and shares with Williams his dream to be a playwright. Now, writers are known to be great competitors with one another. Waging wars have been well documented. The one that comes quickly to mind is the turbulent relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, two of book editor William Maxwell’s greatest and most famous clients.
Williams’ unequivocal jealous reaction to Inge’s news is comical, yet equally expected. And it is this razzling, dazzling effervescence that erupts in Act II, and bubbles throughout the last scene.
It is now November 29, 1959—and we are in the living room of Williams Inge’s luxurious Manhattan apartment, what you get when you have an endless list of hit plays. It is now Inge’s turn to wait on the critics’ last word. And the stories are killing him. Better he does it than they do it, Billy thinks. So, he takes fate into his own hands and tries to commit suicide with a bunchful of pills and a bottle of Vodka. Williams arrives and saves Billy, for now. In a series of scenes, masterfully carried by Richberg, the playwright [Teachout] introduces the overall theme of the play—the complicated question of “What purpose does the artist serve to his or herself or to their audience?”
In Billy’s near death scene, in which Tennessee Williams tells William Inge that the reason why the writer writes, it’s not to change somebody’s life, but to capture themselves, to tell the truth about themselves, to get out all the pent-up insecurities, all the guilt and shame and whatever it is that makes them, them, into their writing. In fact, the act of writing is their own personal catharthis.
As a writer, I identify with Tennessee Williams. You may have a secondary goal in the back of your mind—you hope that people would like it and go see your play, read your book, see your movie, and enjoy it, and tell you that it impacted them or that they identified with it in some way. But, at the end of the day, the initial reason you started writing is because you have to get something out. It compels you to do so.
This is a brilliant, witty play with a hundred laughs, and many that compel a hundred more thoughts.
The world premiere of “Billy and Me” is a show that should not be missed. This main stage production runs through December 31. To purchase tickets, please visit Palm Beach Dramaworks at palmbeachdramaworks.org. PBD is located at 201 Clematis St, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. Box ticket office number is (561) 514-4042.
“Billy and Me” – Review – Palm Beach Dramawork’s World Premiere by Terry Teachout: brilliant, witty play with a hundred laughs with a hundred more thoughts.