At the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, director David Kaplan presents a collage of some of Williams' famous and not-so-famous plays, monologues and music to create a new narrative in A Tennessee Williams Songbook: Only a Paper Moon, a one-woman show starring Tony-nominated actress Alison Fraser.
"Like any Brooklyn Jew, I have a fascination with Mississippi, that exotic world of fried okra and Moon Pies," Kaplan says.
The festival features productions of other works by Williams, including Auto-Da-Fe and The Gnadiges Fraulein, scholarly discussions of Williams' work, readings and talks by columnist and author Leonard Pitts Jr., fiction writer Moira Crone, historian Douglas Brinkley, playwright John Patrick Shanley, novelists Christine Wiltz and Nevada Barr and others, plus seminars on how to get published and the annual Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest.
Kaplan discovered the colorful world of Williams as an undergraduate at Clark University in Western Massachusetts, where he directed a production of Suddenly Last Summer. He helped start the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival and authored Tennessee Williams in Provincetown, which documents the summers Williams spent at the beach resort and artists' retreat on Cape Cod. Kaplan has taken Williams' work around the globe, directing a Russian-language production of Suddenly Last Summer in Samara, Russia, and a Cantonese production of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale in Hong Kong. He found that these stories reverberate with audiences worldwide.
"I saw the universality of what he was writing about," Kaplan says. "Like any great writer — like Shakespeare, like Ibsen, like Chekhov — Williams had a vision of how people related to each other, and that was a vision that held true no matter the culture."
Kaplan draws on Williams' vision of hope and despair as Songbook's nameless character pines for a better life. Incorporating lines and images from A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and the one-act play Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, the show depicts a woman very much like Blanche DuBois, who steadfastly refuses to accept hard truths even as her imaginary world crumbles.
"It's basically the story of a woman waiting for a man that doesn't come," Fraser says. "That's a theme that goes through a lot of Tennessee Williams' plays — the lonely woman and the disappointing man."
Williams was very particular when writing stage directions, and he often included specific songs. The show's title comes from a scene in Streetcar in which Blanche soaks in the tub and sings "It's Only a Paper Moon," a jaunty tune that includes the lyric "It's only a paper moon hanging over a cardboard sea/ But it wouldn't be make-believe if you believed in me." The song encapsulates Blanche's dilemma, and Kaplan says Williams often called for upbeat music when characters were in unhappy situations.
"Any music in a play by Tennessee Williams is always the paradise heard across the street, the happiness and grace that others enjoy, overheard by those in very different circumstances than grace," he says. "But if music sometimes mocks in a Williams play, at the same time music inspires those who hear it, moving us to believe that just out the window, or just around the corner, paradise can be found."
Songbook covers a wide range of styles — from early jazz and blues to country-Western ballads and Latin love songs — and most of them are songs Williams would have known from his youth.
The songs are arranged by Allison Leyton Brown, a New York City pianist who'll be joined on stage by a cast of local jazz musicians. Also sitting in with the band is trombonist and ukulele virtuoso J. Walter Hawkes, an Emmy-winning composer originally from Mississippi. The show includes "Sophisticated Lady," a Duke Ellington song cited in Williams' Clothes for a Summer Hotel, but it took time for Fraser, who is known for her work on Broadway, to find her voice on the jazz standard.
"I wanted to look at it from the perspective of someone who is living a life of emotional pain," Fraser says. "And then I realized she's drunk. She's not sophisticated at all. This woman is on a downward spiral. It's drunkenness brilliantly evoked by Duke Ellington, because she's trying to keep steady and not quite doing it."
Fraser and actor Bryan Batt (Mad Men) are staging a reading of Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen at the festival under Kaplan's direction. The reading highlights the intensity of Williams' writing, which Kaplan says is as integral to Songbook as the music.
"The words themselves are not only powerful, but evocative," he says. "The words to me are an incantation. If you say them out loud, something happens in the room. There is a magic that happens."