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Staging Tennessee 

We're talking about the '40s and '50s. These are the years of Streetcar, Cat and Rose Tattoo -- of people like Anna Magnani, Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan. Tennessee had finally reached fame with The Glass Menagerie in 1945. Before that, life was all struggle. Now that he had fame, the struggle was to try and hold on to it."

Steve Lawson is describing Blanche and Beyond, a theatrical presentation he compiled from the letters of Tennessee Williams. The show kicks off the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival this Thursday at Southern Rep. Blanche and Beyond is actually Lawson's second exploration of the Williams correspondence; in 2002, he brought us A Distant Country Called Youth, which covered the years before Thomas Williams had transformed himself into Tennessee Williams, titan of the American stage. Lawson not only crafted both of the scripts, he also directed the shows.

"I actually knew Williams a bit at the end of his life," says Lawson. "In 1979, the Williamstown Theatre (in Massachusetts) was going to do Camino Real and I was deputized to invite Williams to come. He did come and he was pleased with the production.

"'When my own words scare me,' he said, 'I know it's well done.'

"That's classic Williams," Lawson continues. "Most people don't realize how funny the man was. He told me he loved Williamstown, because while he was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, someone asked him how large was the population of the city. 'Two queers and a dyke,' Williams answered, 'and they are incredibly well-armed!' Anyway, Tennessee was so happy with our Camino Real that he gave me permission two years later to make a stage presentation of his letters."

Both of Lawson's Tennessee shows premiered at The Manhattan Theater Club, where there's a Monday night series called Writers in Performance. Monday night is a dark night in the theater world, so you can shanghai working actors. In fact, actor Richard Thomas was performing in Democracy on Broadway last year at the same time he appeared in Blanche and Beyond. Thomas -- most famous for his stint on TV's The Waltons but also a veteran of stage and film -- stars in the show here as well.

Those who don't want to spring for Thursday's gala tickets can catch a more moderately priced matinee of Blanche and Beyond on Saturday. Lawson and Thomas will also be appearing on a panel discussion called "Performing Tennessee" at the Bourbon Orleans Ballroom Friday afternoon.

There is usually a spate of stage shows as part of the festival, and this year is no exception. Although, as with everything else in post-Katrinadom, the crop is somewhat reduced. Because Le Petit is still full of scaffolds and sawdust, Southern Rep is filling in as home base.

A brief sketch of some of the other offerings must begin with Jeremy Lawrence's return to perform his one-man show Talking Tennessee (6 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday). Lawrence brings the playwright to life in a script crafted from magazine and newspaper articles.

The inimitable John "Spud" McConnell once again offers us his ever-popular incarnation of Ignatius J. Reilly in a staged reading of scenes from John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (8 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday). McConnell is surrounded by a grand group of local actors under direction of Perry Martin.

Last, but not least, we have a staged reading of the winning play from this year's One-Act Play Competition (10 a.m. Sunday), followed at 12:30 p.m. by a production of last year's winner, Jamie Alliots' A Waltz Between. Both of these productions will be performed by students from the University of New Orleans.

There are a few other events, which are not theatrical performances, but may be of particular interest to theater lovers. Film critic and veteran festival guest Rex Reed will conduct the interview titled "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star" (4 p.m. Saturday, Bourbon Orleans Ballroom), borrowing its title from the former teen heartthrob's 2005 tell-all memoir about his life in Hollywood including his years as a closeted gay man. Hunter will discuss, among other things his experiences performing with the legendary Tallulah Bankhead in the 1964 Broadway production of Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. Also, Sweet Tornado: Margo Jones and the American Theater (11:30 a.m. Saturday, The Cabildo) is a documentary narrated by Marcia Gay Harden and starring Judith Ivey as the Dallas theater director and Richard Thomas as Tennessee Williams, who described Jones as "a combination of Joan of Arc, Gene Autry and nitroglycerine."

As usual, the festival concludes with the wildest and most unpredictable theatrical performance of the weekend: the Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest. The subtlety of the characterizations these contestants bring to their admittedly brief monologues cannot help but impress a discriminating observer. It's often been said New Orleans' culture is in the streets. Here, the tradition continues, with a turn into the alley.

click to enlarge Steve Lawson (left, opposite star Richard Thomas) created - Blanche and Beyond  from the letters of Tennessee Williams.
  • Steve Lawson (left, opposite star Richard Thomas) created Blanche and Beyond from the letters of Tennessee Williams.
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