In Cody Estle’s inaugural directorial production as Artistic Director of Raven Theatre, as well as the first commissioned play of the theatre’s history, Phillip Dawkins explores the dark pasts of two famous playwrights – Tennessee Williams and William Inge. While it is fact that these two playwrights knew each other and shared a friendship, the precise details about the extent of the relationship, are unknown.
This powerful world premiere poses questions about art and identity that not only adds an exciting perspective on the possibilities of the relationship, but also expands past the stage and into the lives of its viewers: Who are we? How do we identify ourselves? What makes us choose the paths we take, and what are the costs of following our dreams?
The Gentleman Caller at Raven Theatre
Written by Phillip Dawkins and directed by Cody Estle, this story first takes the audience back to 1944 when Bill Inge (Curtis Edward Jackson) invites Tennessee Williams (Rudy Galvan) to his home in St. Louis for a newspaper interview. What begins as an innocent interview quickly spirals into a rendezvous that neither one could possibly see coming. Over the course of the evening both men begin to question their own choices – both in terms of the professional and the personal, and realize that maybe one needs the other in order to propel towards some level of happiness. Dawkins then transports the audience to a 1945 hotel room in Chicago for Act Two, allowing them to see impacts of time on the characters.
In his two-hander, Dawkins takes the fact of this interaction and friendship between Inge and Williams, and speculates about what may have occurred behind closed doors. The story that blossoms is deeply moving, and invites the audience to take a peek into the truly complex lives of these two men battling their own dreams and sexualities in the 1940s. It is known that both men in history committed suicide later in life, but what Dawkins creates is the beginnings of why – why would these two men feel so burdened by unhappiness that they felt there was no other choice?
Dawkins presents the story through Williams’ point of view, and he establishes a clever convention early in the play that is exciting to watch unravel – particularly for fans of Tennessee Williams’ work.
Fans of Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie will remember that the character Tom steps outside the traditional narrative to speak directly to the audience – a convention that allows viewers to understand his own point of view towards the events unfolding within his home regarding his mom and sister. Dawkins cleverly adapts this structure into The Gentleman Caller through the character of Tennessee Williams himself – beginning with the opening monologue.
Estle masterfully highlights Dawkins’ choice through his staging, and creates two separate worlds to accompany the monologue. Scenic Designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s design is stunning, with a cozy and tastefully decorated living room that consumes the stage in Act One. Inge enters and busily cleans his apartment, and Williams enters downstage in front of the structure to begin his direct address. Galvan immediately enchants the audience with his charm and sly humor as he sets the scene – Inge is prepping for the interview, and the audience should prepare for a story that may not end happily. Once Williams finishes his monologue and enters the scene, there are moments in which he turns to the audience and offers his insights, again in the separate “narrator world.” Much like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams in Dawkins’ play is the all-knowing narrator, and Estle helps ease the audience into the convention in a smooth manner.
Honest and Powerful Storytelling
Dawkins’ emotionally moving story explores Tennessee Williams and Bill Inge’s challenging pathways towards acceptance of their identities and careers, and how those two aspects are inescapably linked. When Williams meets Inge, he is in desperate need of some acceptance – he has not yet written a true hit, and is unsure of whether or not his art will make a difference. He needs this interview from Inge to go well and on the other side, Inge wants acceptance of the self he is trying to hide. As he struggles with his sexual identity, he wonders if this man who has the career he someday hopes to have might be able to offer him some comfort. While the play is set specifically in the 1940s, Dawkins exploration in these two men is painfully relatable.
Galvan and Jackson rise to the occasion of bringing these famous, yet somewhat mysterious playwrights to life. As successful as both playwrights became, they both took their own lives, and the two actors portray that conflict with brutal honesty. Jackson highlights the overwhelming anxiety of Inge as he struggles to come to terms with his desires – both artistically as a playwright, and personally in regard to his sexuality. Galvan on the other hand with his lovely comedic timing emphasizes the smooth nature of this Tennessee Williams, with the ability to sweet talk anyone that also creates the perfect mask for his insecurities. Together, their stage chemistry is brilliant, and the arc of the relationship that Estle helps them build is heartbreaking.
Creative storytelling and a powerful script make The Gentleman Caller a must-see. The questions that Dawkins raises will stick with you for days, and the team as a whole sheds some thrilling perspective on the lives of these mysterious playwrights.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theater in Chicago
Playing through May 27, 2018
Thursdays at 8:00pm
Fridays at 8:00pm
Saturdays at 8:00pm
Sundays at 3:30pm
Run Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.