by John Bavoso
This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.
In his note in the program of Rainbow Theatre Project’s new production of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-known play Clothes for a Summer Hotel—his last to be produced on Broadway in his lifetime—director Greg Stevens notes that the piece was a critical and commercial flop that drove the playwright further down the path of dejection and substance abuse. Now, I’m all for challenging oneself, but that seems like an inauspicious starting point when it comes to season planning. Indeed, the result is an admirably designed and executed production of an unfortunately flawed and not particularly engaging play.
The subject of Clothes for a Summer Hotel is the denouement of the infamously turbulent relationship between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story unfolds over the course of one day, during which Scott, at this point living in Hollywood with another woman and suffering from cardiac episodes, visits Zelda at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, NC, where she has been committed and has returned to her love of ballet. During this visit, the couple’s past is explored through conversation, memory, and fantasy.
Williams resented that the play was panned by detractors as a straightforward biography of the celebrity couple that got its facts wrong. He—and Stevens—insisted that the Fitzgeralds are merely a jumping off point for exploring his relationship with his own mentally ill sister, Rose, and his internal grappling with the end of his writing career (the play premiered in 1980; Williams died in 1983). However, as loaded down as the script is with references, allusions, and exposition about real-life figures, I can’t really fault the play’s original critics for viewing it more as a work of edification than entertainment.
One of the more intriguing parts of the play is its framing device. Billed as a ghost story, the characters are aware, to a certain extent, that they’re long-dead apparitions who have been conscripted into a work of theatre. This idea is reinforced by the character of The Writer (Matty Griffiths), who sits to the side of the stage, typing, drinking, smoking, announcing the beginning of each new scene, and reading stage directions. Griffiths does an excellent job staying in character while not actively part of the scene, and Stevens has created some clever moments for him to interact with the other characters.
Given a heavier load to carry are Aidan Hughes and Sara Barker as Scott and Zelda, respectively. The ways in which Williams has structured the script—jumping between times and locations—and his use of heightened language makes it somewhat challenging to establish an authentic-feeling relationship between the two leads, and in turn for the audience to become invested. Given Zelda’s volatility, Baker has more frequent opportunities to display an emotional range; Hughes’ Scott, however, falls a bit flat. They have some interesting moments together—particularly when discussing how Scott used Zelda’s life for his novels while also preventing her from pursuing a writing career of her own—but I never truly bought them as a couple simultaneously desperately in love and passionately at odds with one another.
A play with eight actors—most of whom play two roles—and multiple locations would be a logistical challenge for any playing space, but the compact nature of the black box at the DC Arts Center only heightens that complexity. Big kudos go out to Greg Stevens and his design team for maximizing the performance area and creating moments of separation and intimacy on a crowded stage—particularly for scenes between Zelda and her lover, Edouard (Brian J. Shaw), and snippets of levity featuring the nuns at the asylum (Mary May and Barbara Papendorp).
Pulling double duty as director and scenic designer, Stevens deftly creates five or six different areas on the tight stage, while Elliott Shugoll’s lighting design and Cresent Haynes’ sound design are a constant presence that add to the story and aid in differentiation rather than pull focus.
Overall, I left the theatre impressed with the artistry and professionalism of those involved, but not very fond of the piece itself. I am still rather puzzled as to why this particular company would choose this particular play at this particular time. Stevens mentions in his note that his goal with this production is to resurrect and give new life to Clothes for a Summer Hotel; unfortunately, I think it may better serve as proof that some ghosts from our theatrical past are better left to rest.