There is no question that Tennessee Williams ranks among the greatest and most prolific of 20th Century American playwrights. Theatre companies around the world continually revive hits like The Glass Menagerie, A Street Car Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and many others. His lesser-known works and his critical failures, often derided when they were first produced, have gained a more favorable reaction with the passing of time. His 1968 play, Kingdom of Earth (also known as The Seven Descents of Myrtle), pounded by the critics and shunned by audiences, lasted less than four weeks at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. In the 21st Century, however, a more tolerant audience familiar with and, perhaps, more comfortable with the current state of sexual, social and racial diversity, will find the play enthralling with characters of depth delivering the inimitable Williams language.
The play starts in crisis. It’s the 1960s on the Mississippi Delta and floodwaters are soon to crest threatening to inundate a formerly elegant farmhouse occupied by a man called Chicken (Brian Burke). A car pulls up outside and a man and a woman make their way in. The man, Lot (Daniel Felix de Weldon), seems weak and exhausted, while the woman, Myrtle (Susan Priver), is elated, bubbling over in excitement. They are newlyweds, married the day before on a TV game show in Memphis.
The effeminate Lot is weak and clearly not a well man. He coughs and frequently dabs his mouth with a handkerchief, a sure sign of consumption. Blond, bubbling Myrtle, a down and out showgirl, is ecstatic with her good fortune – a wife of a man of property! Lot owns the place, but his half-brother has worked the farm while Lot languished in a hospital or sanitarium. There is no love lost between them. Chicken is darker skinned then his pale brother who bleaches his hair blond. Chicken calls himself a “woods-colt,” meaning he is the product of a woman his father did not marry. He also has the manners and language of a brute.
As in many Williams plays, property is an issue. Lot made an agreement with his brother, that if he dies, the property goes to Chicken. There is a document to that effect. But a new wife clouds that deal. How Myrtle negotiates the fraught situation under the threat of impending doom, as her husband displays his inclinations in ever more outlandish ways, and Chicken, reminiscent of Stanley Kowalski, makes nice with her, rivets the audience in their seats.
The cast of Kingdom of Earth is first rate and the direction by Michael Arabian is impeccable. How scenic designer John Iocovelli packs the illusion of a two-story house with flourishes of elegance into the limited space of Odyssey Theatre’s Stage 2 is amazing. The lighting by Bill E. Kickbush, which makes use of kerosene lanterns to cue illumination, is excellent as is the sound design of John Nobori. Costume design by Shon LeBlanc suits both character and period.
Kingdom of Earth is produced by Dance on Productions in association with Linda Tolliver and Gary Guidinger. The Odyssey guest production continues through August 15 at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.