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Tennessee Williams Remembered at the 92nd Street Y

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In the midst of the Oscar season tumult, it is reassuring to think of our most poetic and prolific American playwright Tennessee Williams as the author of scripts that became celebrated films. Case in point, Baby Doll (1956), directed by Elia Kazan with gorgeous performances, controversial in their time by Caroll Baker, her brutish husband played by Karl Malden, and introducing a young and suave Eli Wallach. Yes, Baker is a virginal, kittenish coquette on the verge of losing her innocence. The script like much of Williams' work features fragile women, women like Glass Menagerie's Amanda and Streetcar's Blanche, maddened. You imagine them productive and happy under other circumstances, while the men in their lives, sub-conscious, unreflective, with the sensitivity of gnats buzz about noisily doing what they do.

This week the 92nd Street Y hosted a Williams celebration co-curated by David Kaplan and Thomas Keith with a sampling of readings and historic performances, a special event much like the tribute at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 2009, when Williams was inducted into the Poet's Corner. The casting was brilliant, bringing onto the Y's stage actresses closely associated with Tennessee Williams' work. Olympia Dukakis currently starring in the Roundabout Theater's production of Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore on Broadway performed the famous speech from that 1964 play about her fourth husband whose demise she occasioned by giving him a car.

Jessica Lange had starred as Amanda in a recent production of Glass Menagerie, but at the Y performed from Night of the Iguana. Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of the famed director, performed a scene from Mister Paradise. Alec Baldwin had starred on Broadway as Stanley, but kissed Angelica Torn long and hard as Mitch to her Blanche. Torn, the daughter of longtime actors associated with Williams, Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, had known the playwright as a young girl. In a particularly poignant moment, Marian Seldes read from a 1947 letter to Elia Kazan.

Another exceptional moment was the legendary Sylvia Miles performing the role of the Princess from Sweet Bird of Youth. Miles originated the character of Mrs. Ware in Vieux Carre. Williams had written a variation of Milk Train just for her, and she performed as Maxine in the 1963 Broadway revival of Night of the Iguana. At the Y, Miles exhibited her famed comic timing, especially intoning the name of her character, the actress Alexandra Del Lago. "I am Alexandra del Lago," she later said, identifying utterly with the playwright's sensiblity. "Everything that happens to her has happened to me."

Cross posted at Gossip Central.