A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur at The Shaw Festival
Deborah Hay as Dorothea. Photo by David Cooper
Shaw's production of A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur reminds one, via
Tennessee Williams, that life is indeed, replete with heartbreak, that we are all destined to experience its repeated anguish, but perhaps it's best to simply press on. Yet, as with The Sea performed in the same Court House Theatre, at the end there is optimism aka hope.
The name crève cur (heartbreak) supposedly derives from the sad tale of a lovelorn Indian girl whose broken heart led her to suicide. Creve Coeur is an area in west St. Louis County, Missouri, in Greater St. Louis, also headquarters of Monsanto, whose genetic farm products have caused heartbreak of their own, but Williams is concerned here with human frailty, people who dream away their lives with false hope and unrealistic expectations. And all four women in the play epitomize this risky condition.
On a warm June morning, Dorothea (Deborah Hay) dutifully performs her daily callisthenic routine while roommate Bodey (Kate Hennig) fries chicken for a picnic at Creve Coeur Park. Dorothea anxiously waits for the phone to ring, positive that Ralph, the principal of the high school where she teaches civics, will surely propose, particularly after their most recent sexual "consummation" in Ralph's car.
Bodey thinks that her twin brother Buddy is the right guy for Dorothea, but his addiction to beer, knockwurst and cheap cigars deletes him from the batting order. Nevertheless, like a fervent MLB scout, Bodey keeps pitching her flawed brother even as Dorothea's co-worker, Helena (Kaylee Harwood) drops in unexpectedly on purpose to coerce Dorothea into joining her in an upscale, expensive apartment. Adding tension to the already conflicted situation, Miss Gluck (Julain Molnar), a grieving German-speaking neighbour, mourning the loss of her mother, slinks through the doorway for coffee, strudel and reassurance.
Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell suggests, "Many celebrated playwrights have explored the one-act play to great success - Shaw, Chekhov and Coward, to name three that we have presented often. Tennessee Williams was also a great lover of this form and it was a true delight to find this later piece which shows Williams in an unusual, and absolutely delightful, flat-out comic mode."
Indeed, there are great exchanges:
Bodey: You mean you don't care if Buddy shapes up or not?
Dotty: Shapes up for what?
Bodey: Naturally for you, Dotty.
Dotty: Does he regard me as an athletic event, the high jump or pole vault?
The women in this production are wonderfully skilled. Hay embodies the fragile dreamer, Harwood the haughty schemer, Hennig, a crusty
match-maker and Molnar, reduced to groans, screams and tears, the ultimate loner.
Kate Hennig, frying chicken and making deviled eggs for the Sunday picnic, is exceptional in her portrayal of the frumpy, dominating, gruff and over-protective Bodey, determined to connect an unappealing brother with her vulnerable roommate, Dorothea, played to perfection by Hay, whom one marvels at even as she religiously repeats simple exercises, denoting a hopeful yet ultimately dreary persistence and - sure impending emotional exhaustion. Hay is a schoolteacher and "woman of a certain age" and like Williams' Amanda Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie) "Dottie" creates her Prince Charming out of a phoney womanizer, wasting away her life. Head-in-the-clouds and outfitted with a slow Southern drawl to match her Cat on a Hot Tin Roof slip, Hay is an intriguing protagonist.
Tennessee Williams gets in some cheap laughs as Bodey is proud that the butcher, a fellow German, allows her to "feel his meat," and Gluck is afflicted with diarrhea. Harwood's Helena is icy-cool, haughtiness personified, her slick outfit and stylish hair nicely contrasted with the plebeian garb worn by the others, Hay confined to her slip and later, a nice girlie type dress that one might wear to Sunday school. Henning is pure Beverley Hillbillies' material and Molnar never gets out of her bathrobe.
Aided by Louise Guinard with appropriate lighting, Cameron Porteous has designed the ideal set for this Court House production, a warren-like, claustrophobic, mish-mash of disagreeable, connecting rooms that offer little privacy or aesthetic pleasure.
This lunchtime show is an opportunity to view a gem not often enacted - an amusing one-act play by Tennessee Williams. Shaw has produced two of his earlier, more well-known plays - Summer and Smoke (2007) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2011). A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur was written in the late 1970s, four years before his death, a rich study in loneliness, the need for connection, and unavoidable compromises made to help us all get to the other side. Director Blair Williams, blessed with a terrific cast and designers, helps to make this a memorable production, well worth an hour of our time.
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur plays at the Court House Theatre to October 11.
Director's Notes: Blair Williams (From the program)
"One wakes up in the morning and reaches for eyeglasses, coffee and a myth. You can see that one needs vision, energy, and that myth. Otherwise that day is simply impossible to face, endure, survive..."
"The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle." Woody Allen
What is the myth we reach for in the morning? That we won't be alone? That we're not? That our hearts won't be broken?
Tennessee Williams wrote this play in rather a hurry, late in his life, when his career was at its nadir. In it, he draws on the distorted memories of his youth, the same memories
that had given him his first great success. Set in the St Louis of Amanda Wingfield and The Glass Menagerie, the play conjures a similar time, when America was matriculating in a school for the blind, having its fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy... He loved it, and called it a little bijou - a gothic joke of the American Dream gone wrong.
A broken heart is, of course, at the centre of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, but in some ways, Williams felt that heartbreak was at the centre of every day - the natural course of things. He saw a kind of nobility in heartbreak, a kind of triumph - the sense that a flower can crack concrete, and that a heart, though broken, may still love.
What is heartbreak? Simply that we have learned something; and, as Shaw says, that
always feels as though we've lost something. We learn, we survive. We learn to be compassionate to ourselves. We learn to heal. We learn, when we recover our balance, that we can survive the shattering of the myths we tell ourselves.
It's a lovely afternoon for heartbreak.
Tennessee Williams Interview with Bill Boggs
Mysteries and Scandals - Tennessee Williams