By Kimberly Rau
Gamm has had a busy summer.
After the repertory wrapped its 2017-18 season with the stunning “As You Like It,” it had to up sticks and move – down to Warwick, to renovate and occupy the big blue building formerly home to Ocean State Theater Company – as well as work on its 2018-19 opener, Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana,” under the direction of Fred Sullivan Jr.
Both seemed like a big undertaking, but as usual, Gamm has risen to the challenge and done beautifully. The new space has been divided – OSTC had almost 300 seats, but a curtain sections off all but 180 of them, creating an intimate experience more suited to Gamm’s image, while still allowing for future versatility.
And the play?
It seems like a simple enough job. One set to stage a play that takes place over the course of one night in 1940. But this is Williams, and the story is anything but basic.
We have Rev. Shannon, a former preacher (not de-frocked, mind you, simply locked out of his church for preaching atheistic sermons and going after young women in the congregation) turned international tour guide. He’s supposed to ride the bus through Mexico and point out the sights, but instead opts to bring his disgruntled group of Baptist women to the Costa Verde, a small hotel that Shannon has frequented in order to relax, and occasionally literally go crazy, before. Old habits die hard, because this time Shannon’s also in hot water for sleeping with an underage girl on the tour. He might be on the wagon, but his nerves are so frayed that it’s scary to think what he might look like off of it. This bear of a role is undertaken by Tony Estrella, and it’s hardly surprising to report he does a great job with it. Shannon is an unlikeable guy, but Estrella gives him the depth needed to create a strong audience connection.
Maxine is the recently widowed proprietor of the hotel who has a penchant for young men…and the good reverend. Shannon spends most of his time putting her off, and Maxine spends most of hers ignoring his protests and trying to get rid of her more unwelcome guests, the wholesome Hannah and her 98-year-old poet grandfather Nonno. Hannah, played by Jeanine Kane, recognizes a lot of herself in Shannon but all of her interventions are blocked by Maxine. Kane and Estrella have a long stage history together, and their natural stage chemistry only helps you understand Hannah and Shannon’s mutual frustrations with, and attractions to, each other. Maxine, expertly played by Deb Martin, is brash, unapologetic, and more vulnerable than she’d like you to believe.
Other notable roles include the choir director Miss Fellowes, played by Gamm newcomer Michelle Walker. Fellowes is described as butch, a perceived man-hater, but a lot of Shannon’s contempt for her is due to Fellowes’ ability to see through his shine. Walker is a delight in this role. And Maria Day and Brandon Whitehead play a suspected Nazi German couple, stopping for a quick vacation in Mexico before presumably fleeing to Argentina. Their lighthearted banter and attitudes stand in hilarious contrast to the terrible people they really are, and Day and Whitehead play it to the hilt.
The set, designed by Patrick Lynch, is perfect, a collage of faded greens and browns set against a vibrant suggestion of the surrounding rain forest. And the special effects that create a particularly violent tropical storm are subtle but impressive, including fans creating wind over the audience.
The show lasts almost three hours, including intermission, but Sullivan keeps things moving at a good pace. There are some clunky moments and a few things that didn’t strike the right chord, but these are minor and shouldn’t prevent you from seeing the show. It’s a beautifully constructed think piece that is well worth your time. Gamm may have a new location and a new look, but this season opener tells us all we need to know: This is Gamm in all its glory.
The Night of the Iguana runs through Nov. 4 at the Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets start at $44 and may be obtained by calling 401.723.4266 or online at www.gammtheatre.org